In no other culture has the seal played such an important role as in the Chinese culture. With a history of over 3000 years, the seal has been used to mark one’s identity, credentials, and importance for the Chinese people.
While the seal is used by people from all walks of life, it can still be categorized largely into three types: Imperial, Official and Private.
Imperial seals, as the name suggests, were seals owned by the Chinese emperors. Dynasty after dynasty, Chinese emperors used the seal to establish their power and sovereignty. For the Chinese people, the Imperial seals signified the Mandate of Heaven.
The Imperial seals carried either the word xi or bao depending on which dynasty or emperor was in power at a particular period in time. The number of these seals also changed depending on which dynasty ruled at that time. For instance, during the Han dynasty, the emperor had six seals. This increased to eight when the Tang dynasty was in power and then to 12 in the Ming times. By the time the Qing dynasty came to rule, there were many dozens of Imperial seals in use. These seals were used for official purposes by the emperor.
Emperors also used another type of Imperial seals. This type of Imperial seal was used to affix works of art, such as calligraphy or painting. When the royal household acquired any work of art, they imprinted the painting or piece of calligraphy with the Imperial seal to establish their mark of appreciation. This also increased the value of the artwork.
Official seals were conferred to officers of rank to carry out their duties. These seals marked their authority and their position. The official seals, typically, bore the titles of the offices, rather than the names of the owners. These seals varied in shape and material used. Depending on the position of the official, the seal could either be golden or copper or in the shape of a camel or turtle.
Private seals were those used by the people at large. They were, typically, for personal use and could be equated with the signature in today’s times. Because of the nature of their use, Private seals were unregulated. They came in a variety of shapes, sizes, materials, and calligraphy.
Most people in China used the Private seal as a signature. These seals had their names, pen names, pseudonyms, or even phrases inscribed on them. Artists often used Private seals to sign their works of art. Chinese people also used the Private seal to sign on their letters and other documents.
As you can see, seals were of paramount importance to the Chinese people. Over the centuries, the craft of making seals was closely followed by specialist seal carvers. They carved seals based on their customer's needs. These specialists were adept at using different types of fonts. Be it the traditional seal character, clerical script, or the regular script, the specialist was equally conversant with them all. Customers could also opt for the more artistic lettering types, which came in the shape of birds, insects, and the phoenix. However, not all the Chinese people went to specialists for their seals. Many of them created the seals themselves.
In ancient times, the seals were either made of jade or bronze. Jade was the preferred material for royals and noblemen. However, with time, people resorted to more accessible materials such as wood, stone, ivory, horn, alloy, and synthetic fiber. Even today, the seal plays an equally important role in Chinese culture as it did many thousands of years ago.