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Small Seal Script

    The short-lived Qin Empire is famously the first unified empire of China.

    Over 2,000 years ago, between 221 BC and 206 BC, it attempted to unify and standardise many aspects of Chinese civilisation and culture.

    Some of these attempts were infamously destructive. The first Qin emperor (Shi Huangdi) burned books and buried 460 scholars alive.

    And maintaining local currencies, measurements, and writing scripts was treated as treason.

    It’s in this context that small seal was developed – by the very same prime minister (Li Si) whose accusations had lead to the scholar’s executions.

    19th century drawing of the first Qin emperor Shi huangdi
    19th century drawing of the first Qin emperor Shi huangdi

    What is 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 during the Zhou dynasty (1046 BC – 256 BC).

    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, seal script it is often categorised as a single script (made up of both large and small seal scripts). Both are still used for creating seals, which are like stamps used to sign paintings and calligraphy.

    small seal vs modern characters side by side
    Approximation of small seal script (above) alongside modern regular script (below) characters.

    The text is from Confucius’ Analects: “The Master said: ‘Put loyalty and trust above everything. Do not befriend your moral inferiors. Do not be afraid to correct your mistakes.'”

    The origins of small seal script

    Small seal script is said to have been developed by the Qin dynasty prime minister Li Si (李斯 [Lǐ Sī]) (284 – 208 BC), in the early Qin dynasty.

    He standardised and simplified about 3,000 large seal script characters. This process included making them longer and more balanced, which in turn made them easier to write by hand.

    Where small seal script fits in with other scripts

    Shortly after small seal script’s creation, clerical script emerged and surpassed it as the official script of the Chinese empire.

    (A likely apocryphal story has it that clerical script was created by a single official, too.)

    The small and large seal scripts make up two of the eight scripts of the Qin. The other six are:

    • Engraved seal script (刻符 [kèfú])
    • Bird and insect script (虫书 [chóngshū])
    • Imprint script (摹印 [móyìn])
    • Hear script (署书 [shǔshū]) used for plaques and inscriptions
    • Shu (or Spear) script (殳书 [shūshū])
    • Clerical script (隶书 [lìshū])

    These different scripts were used in different circumstances. Small seal script itself was used for edicts, official documents, seals, and stone inscriptions.

    Small seal script is supplanted (but not completely)

    After the Qin dynasty, the next unified Chinese empire was the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD), which lasted near four and a half centuries.

    During the Han dynasty, today’s regular script (楷书 [kǎishū]) appeared. This occurred at approximately the same time as running script (行书 [xíngshū]) and the newer version of grass script (草书 [cǎoshū]) appeared.

    Together, regular, running, and grass script make up the three most commonly used scripts used in subsequent centuries, up until today.

    However, small and large seal script are both still used for certain occasions. For a start, they are the only scripts used to create seals (stamps that act as signatures for artists and calligraphers).

    They are also still used by calligraphers. In the Qing dynasty, in particular, there was a revival of their usage. Many calligraphers appreciate the aesthetics of small seal scripts, which stand out from many other forms of script. 

    Features of small seal script

    Small seal script is a graceful yet vigorous script. 

    Characters in it tend to resemble more whole, almost picture-like symbols than later scripts.

    This is because later scripts are more clearly made up of individual strokes and dots, whereas small seal script joins components carefully and fluidly.

    Writing small seal script requires a lot of time and focus. But this effort pays off, and the end result suits its usage: grand, official, balanced and clear.

    Examples of small seal script

    The first Qin Emperor (Shi Huangdi) (259 – 210 BC) is said to have ordered seven stone monuments (known as stele or stelae in English) set up around China as symbols of his authority. 

    When his son succeeded him as emperor, more inscriptions were added to them.

    The consensus is the characters on these steles were engravings of Li Si’s handwriting (the official and calligrapher who created small seal script).

    Over 2,000 years has passed since they were erected. So, it’s unsurprising that only two of these remain. Both are seen as models of seal script form.

    Langyatai Stele (219 BC)

    The Langyatai Stele (琅琊台刻石 [Lángyá tái kè shí]) was originally erected in Zhucheng, Shandong Province.

    Today, it is kept in the National Museum of China, Beijing.  Unfortunately, most of its engravings have worn away over time. However, the inscription on one of its four sides is still legible.

    section from Langyatai Stele ink rubbing
    section from Langyatai Stele ink rubbing

    Mount Tai Stele (219 BC)

    The Mount Tai Stele (泰山刻石 [Tàishān kè shí]) was originally in the Daimao Temple, Tai’an, Shandong Province.

    It no longer exists. However, two ink rubbings (tracings of its inscriptions onto paper) exist. They were once owned by a Ming dynasty (1368 – 1644 AD) collector named An Guo.

    section from Mount Tai Stele ink rubbing
    Section from Ming dynasty Mount Tai Stele ink rubbing

    Conclusion

    Small seal script (小篆 [xiǎozhuàn]) was an official script developed during the Qin dynasty over 2,000 years ago. It is a simplified and standardized version of the large seal script

    It was quickly surpassed by clerical script in popular usage, but remained popular for centuries (up until today) for calligraphers and seal engravers.

    It is one of the eight scripts of the Qin dynasty, alongside large seal script and others. And it is characterized by its graceful and whole, symbol-like appearance of its characters (as opposed to characters clearly created with different strokes). 

    It requires focus and experience to write well, and therefore is not convenient for everyday use. This contributed to other scripts surpassing it in common usage.