Art of Chinese Seal Engraving
Jie Cheng: The art of Chinese seal engraving
Chinese seal engraving can be traced back to more than 3,000 years. Originally, seal engraving print was a way to show ownership or authorship. It was primarily used on legal documents, commercial papers, or business contracts. With its development, seals gradually became the symbol of personal status or social hierarchy. While the average civilian used fingerprints, the upper class owned private seals. The Chinese Emperor owned a kingdom seal called “Yuxi”, which represented the power of the empire.
The art of Chinese seal engraving
The art of seal engraving is a cornerstone of Chinese fine arts. The seal was originally used as a signature or sign of authority, but it came to be used by all social classes and in much of Asia. The Seal Engravers’ Society of Xiling in Zhejiang Province, central China, which was founded a century ago, preserves the art of seal engraving along with approximately a hundred other specialized institutions. The design is first sketched on paper, and then engraved on stone, in reverse, with a knife. In addition to mastery of traditional calligraphy, the art of engraving requires a high degree of virtuosity, since the artist works on a tiny surface area where every curve, every thickness of line counts. The very diverse motifs are the fruit of the artist’s imagination and culture. As an instrument of calligraphy and painting, the seal is a work of art in itself. It expresses an entire culture’s ideas about humankind and nature. Today, seals continue to be used in official documents and private correspondence. Even though those understanding the complex characters are ever fewer, the art of seal engraving is still practised by both professionals and amateurs.
Chinese seal engraving: The vastness of a square inch
Why is it that a little seal was able to inspire such admiration? This is because Chinese seal engraving is not just about engraving but rather is a perfect combination of calligraphy, composition and carving. Besides reflecting superb carving skills, a good seal is expected to create rugged or ethereally elegant calligraphic strokes composing an image that is a delight to the eye. On a “stage” that usually does not exceed 20 square centimeters, the artist can present a poem, lay out a drawing, tell a story, or relate an emotion.
1 Seals were originally used as a signature or sign of authority, but with the Chinese, seal engraving has been developed into an interesting, elitist expression of traditional Chinese fine arts.
2 From someone knowing nothing about Chinese seal engraving to a person who has developed his own style of seal engraving, Tan has never given up along the process of learning the art despite the numerous setbacks he has gone through.
3 Chinese seal carving is not an average skill.