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Seal Script

    Seal script carries with it an air of the awe-inspiring ancient China in which it was developed.

    It represents the elegant and grand root of ancient Chinese civilisation.

    Today, thousands of years since it appeared, it is still the only script used to create the signature stamps (seals) that Chinese artists, calligraphers, and officials use.

    Side by side comparison of two major seal scripts with modern regular script
    Comparison of two major seal scripts with modern regular script

    What is seal script?

    Seal script is often (but not always) referred to as a single script. However, it can be further divided into two main categories.

    These categories do overlap a lot, but also carry their differences (see below).

    Virtue of an Axe, Steadfastness of Bamboo and Cypress (1864 AD) by Zhao Zhiqian, ink on paper, seal script. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    Large seal script

    Large seal script (sometimes translated as great seal script) is essentially the main script used throughout the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC), Spring and Autumn period (770 BC – 467 BC) and Warring States period (475 BC – 221 BC).

    It developed considerably during the centuries it was in use. Therefore, some argue that it is more of a category of similar scripts than a single, unified script.

    Either way this script (or category) has distinct and clear features that are still recognised and practiced today.

    Large seal script vs bronze script

    Bronze script is essentially large seal script that was cast onto metal objects

    Unlike large seal script, it is relatively well preserved in many cases. Today there are between 5 – 6,000 ancient bronze objects (mostly ritual cauldrons) bearing this script.

    Gong Drinking Vessel Dedicated to Father Xin, mid-Western Zhou period, 956-858 BCE. Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: Palace Museum Open Data)

    Small seal script

    Small seal script is (小篆 [xiǎozhuàn]) is one of the official scripts developed during in the Qin dynasty over 2,000 years ago (221 BC – 206 BC).

    It is made up of simplified and standardised versions of the large seal script that was in use for the centuries before it.

    Small seal script was quickly surpassed in popular usage by clerical script (also developed during the Qin dynasty). However, along with large seal script, it remained popular for through the centuries.

    Today, it is still used – along with large seal script – for creating seals, which are like stamps used to sign paintings and calligraphy.

    “In the seal script, individual characters are sometimes large and sometimes small, representing the forms of a hundred things [in nature]. Alive and full of motion, round and complete, each is a self-contained image.”

    Mi Fu (Song dynasty calligraphy)

    Was there a transitional stage between large and small seal script?

    Many scholars state that there a clear transitional stage between large and small seal script. The degree to which this stage reached (i.e., were intermediatory scripts closer to large or small seal script) is difficult to pin down.

    This is the case with many other scripts, too – for example, large seal script and its even older predecessor oracle bone script.

    Example of intermediary script between large and small seal script

    One example of this intermediatory stage is Inscription on a Measure Instrument Introduced by Shang Yang. This is a bronze inscription written during the Warring States period (476 BC – 221 BC) in the late Western Zhou dynasty.

    The script here is recognised as script from the state of Qin. This state eventually founded the Qin dynasty and created a fuller version small seal script. So, this intermediatory sample should come as no surprise.

    What are the differences between small seal and large seal scripts?

    Small seal script is more simplified and standardised than large seal script. It has more symmetrical and evenly sized characters and components. And thinner and more fluent strokes.

    Small seal script also features more abstract characters, especially in contrast to early large seal script. This reflects the wider pattern across Chinese scripts of characters moving away from their pictorial origins.

    Is seal script still used today?

    Seal script is still popular today. 

    It is the only script used for creating seals – stamps which act as the signatures of officials, artists, and calligraphers.

    It has been continuously practised and admired across the centuries by many different calligraphers. It’s unique shapes and strokes are both aesthetically pleasing and conjure up associations with ancient Chinese civilisation.

    Conclusion

    Understanding seal script helps us appreciate the depth of Chinese civilisations historical roots and its longevity. 

    It can be divided into two key categories – the large seal script and the small seal script. Large seal script in particular comes in many forms. And there are intermediatory forms between both types of seal script. 

    Bronze script is a form of large seal script inscribed on metal objects. It provides well-preserved valuable insights into changing cultural and technological developments, as well as the evolution of the written Chinese language. 

    By contrast, small seal script enjoyed a much shorter process of evolution during the short-lived the Qin dynasty.

    Large and small seal script are still used today in the creation of seals. To many, they symbolize tradition, civilisation, and Chinese history.

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