How Did Chinese Seal Script Transition from a Language to an Art Form? | Teen Ink

How Did Chinese Seal Script Transition from a Language to an Art Form?

June 9, 2022
By BaichuanPeng BRONZE, Chengdu, Other
BaichuanPeng BRONZE, Chengdu, Other
1 article 0 photos 0 comments

Research question:  How did the function of Seal Script evolve from a text form that conveys language to text as art, or more specifically, calligraphy?


Seal Script is an ancient type of Script that is mainly used in Seal carving. The name “Seal Script” is easy to understand because it came from characters Sealed on stone or bone. Its use, at first, was as a written language, primarily for communication. The language uses symbols called “stamps.” Seal Script was invented around the time of the Xia Dynasty in China. (2070-1600 BC). It was widely used until the end of the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC). After this, it fell out of usage for over millennia but then was revived during the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644 AD). In China, calligraphy that was used to write Seal Script is looked at as a mysterious form, harkening from an unknown time in Chinese history. In other words, the modern era retroactively may have transformed the meaning of Seal Script from a form of oral and written communication to a form of art. Part of the mystery is that it is hard to understand the meaning of the shapes and symbols when it was used as a text-based language, so the language(s) itself seems lost. In this paper, I will offer several hypotheses for why the modern approach to Seal Script has shifted from thinking about Seal Script primarily as a language to thinking about Seal Script as a form of art, which doesn’t convey meaning as a vehicle but expresses meaning in its very form, structure, and aesthetic qualities. Ultimately, by presenting several different hypotheses, I aim to demonstrate that this shift is itself a result of modern analysis and may not have actually been a historical event in the history of Seal Script. 

Seal Script:

Seal Script consists of a set of hieroglyphics symbols, which usually represent the objects that depict but stand for particular sounds or groups of sounds. After the language was derived, its written form evolved. This happened as previous symbols started to be arranged differently. [1] From 1978 to 1985, contemporary anthropologists researching the Hongshan discovered the first modern evidence of the Seal Script.[3] These anthropologists believe the origin of the Seal Script can be traced back to the “Hongshan…(period) of China '' (4000 BC - 3000 BC), which is in line with the Neolithic period.[2] At that time, there were multiple tribal societies in China. Their cultures evolved independently of each other, and at least one or more of them created what is the basis for Seal Script. 

The language, inherited from the ancient Hongshan culture, was mainly used by people in Qin before the formation of the Qin Dynasty (221 BC – 207 BC). During the period of the Qin dynasty, people would Seal characters on wood or stone to record and communicate information.[4] For example, the recording of historical events and military control signals were communicated and recorded with Seal Script. Because wood and stone are expensive materials for writing, and seal Script follows an intricate hieroglyphic structure, it wasn’t used by everyday people to communicate everyday things. It was mostly used for official record-keeping of formal information. 

Large Seal Script: 

The earliest form of post-Hongshan Seal Script was known as the “Large Seal Script” (Dazhuan). It was derived from symbols cast on bronze ritual vessels during the period of the Shang (1600-1046 BC) and Zhou Dynasties (1046-229 BC).[5] During the period between these dynasties, China split into numerous smaller countries. Each country had its own version of Seal Script. Even so, they all had similar appearances.[2] All versions of Seal Script during this period, as a  language, were characterized by their use of non-uniform lines. Because of that, later scholars have labeled all versions from this time under the umbrella of “Large Seal Script”. There are many explanations for why the lines have different thicknesses. A widely accepted reason is that different kinds of stones and rocks used in Sealing characters were more heterogeneous. This means there were impurities in the stones that made it undesirable for Sealing characters with intricate structures. The result was a more simplified and larger type of Script to help the writers make Seal Script more legible and appealing. 

Small Seal Script[5]:

In 221 BC, China unified into the Qin Dynasty, which lasted until 207 BC. During this time, a unified character set also emerged. Large Seal Script had eliminated cultural and linguistic barriers between different regions of China.  But upon the formation of the Qin Dynasty, a newly formed version of the language called Small Seal Script encouraged more trade, helping to further connect people from all different regions of China.

The lines in Small Seal Script are more intricate than the ones in Large Seal Script. This is due to the discovery of Qing Stone (also called Bluestone). Bluestone is a sedimentary rock, formed by the fusion of particles deposited in lakes, rivers, and oceans.[6]  Its smooth surface reduces cracks in the sealed text. Its form has fewer impurities than the bronze used for Large Seal Script. Moreover, Small Seal Script also had less complex configurations. This contributed to the language being easier to read, and thus it became more widely utilized. The simplified structure made the language easier for communication and recording. Due to the invention of paper around this time as well, people also began to write Seal Script on paper  rather than on bamboo or stone.

Seal Carving

Chinese Seals were carved into stone. They were a type of stamp used to mark important documents, pieces of art, contracts, and any other item that requires a signature.[7] The Seals were dipped in either red ink or cinnabar paste. They were first created using the Qin Script. During his reign as the First Emperor, Qin Shi Huang unified China. He ordered the first Imperial Seal to be carved using white jade. The Seal was called the "Xi" and was only used by those in power. During the Ming (1368-1644 AD) and Qing (1644-1912 AD) dynasties, the Seals started to be used by not only the Imperial Court but everyday citizens. This was due to the expansion of the feudal arts. Artists began using a stylized Seal carving with their names marking ownership of their works. Personalized stamps also came into usage by everyday citizens to mark important documents.[8] These non-official stamps were called "Yin". In what follows, this paper will propose reasons as to how and why Seal Script changed from a language used in recording and communicating important information to becoming a calligraphic art form. Examining different possibilities undergirding this shift is important for how we read present-day analyses of the long history of the Seal Script. 

Hypothesis 1:

The Seal Script may have started to transform into calligraphy since the Qin Script

First of all, it is worthwhile to explain the formation of the Qin Script. After the Xia and Shang Script, the large empire of Shang began to splinter and six smaller powers formed. Qin was one of the countries among the six. Later, its re-annexation of other major powers makes it become the most powerful and largest kingdom in Asia.

In 221 BC, Qin Shi Huang conquered all other countries and was the first emperor of the Qin Dynasty, which lasted until 207 BC.[5] During this time, Qin Shi Huang established a system of centralized and hierarchical authority to govern the state. Then, the emperor was regarded as the son of Heaven who had the greatest power in the nation. In the centralized system established by Qin Shi Huang, the emperor can be understood as a  “cult of personality” built up as  “the greatest person in the nation”.[9]  As a result, aided by the characteristics of the hierarchical system invented by Qin Shi Huang, the emperor gradually becomes deified. 

To serve this sacred emperor, people recorded his greatness in texts using Seal Script. Seal Script, as the official language in the Qin Dynasty, was used to document the achievement of the kings.[10] The development in the smoothness of the lines and increase in the artistic shape of characters make the Seal Script generally look more artistic and regal. Since those records were written or Sealed by the emperor’s nominal admirers who aimed to satisfy him, the beauty of handwriting might have then been a priority. Another explanation of the artistic element in Seal Script in the Qin Dynasty could be due to the emperor himself rather than the people around him. For one thing, the emperor, as a man who has the greatest power in the nation, may feel bored about continuing to pursue greater power or wealth. The emperor, thus, may have the leisure to enjoy the beauty of the artwork. While still taking responsibility for his duties, the emperor may shift a part of his focus from the prosperity of the country or conquering land to personal interests. It is then that the emperor may start to pursue art. But he may also be criticized for not fully concentrating on his own work. Therefore, the emperor  may transform Seal Script into calligraphy art as a solution to this dilemma. In this way, the emperor can enjoy the art of characters while dealing with his day-to-day work. 

At the same time, due to the status of the emperor, the job of recording the achievements would be done by the recorder who exhibited the most excellent skill in carving characters. Although there is no solid evidence showing that the selection of the recorder includes the fineness of their characters, the technique would be a necessary measurement of a favorable recorder. The desire for a more aesthetic technique could lay a foundation for the transformation of Seal Script from a way of simply recording text to convey information to a practice of artistry via calligraphy.  

Hypothesis 2:  

The transformation of Seal Script from a language to calligraphy during the Han Script

As previously mentioned, Seal Script was the official language of the Qin Dynasty, but after, Seal Script was replaced by another type of Script. In the Han Dynasty  (Han Script 202 B.C.E - 220 C.E.) Clerical Script, a new regularized form of script, was invented and widely used, in which each character usually consists of one line that has both elements of a “silkworm head” and a “goose tail.”   Soft brushes were also commonly used in the Han Script and their soft nibs produced effects, such as the last wavy diagonal stroke of certain characters, which could not be achieved by curving.[11] Seal Script should have become obsolete after the invention of this new type of Script, but it still existed in stelas (usually a carved or inscribed stone slab or pillar used for commemorative purposes) of the Han Script.[12] Therefore, Seal Script may appear to people in Han and after the Han Script as a form of “retro” art. 

From the historical remnants of the Han Seal Script, the formal Script used during the Han period was the clerical Script.[13] Seal Script was rarely found in the remnants of the Han Script, but there were still a few stelas left that seem to indicate the transformation of Seal Script from a way of conveying meaning textually to a form of art in later dynasties. The “Yuan An” plate of the Han Script may be a sign of this transformation.[14] This plate shows the gradual shift in focus of the Seal Script from an instrumental way of expressing meaning to something expressing pure beauteousness. 

In the Qin Script, the thickness of the line is consistent and shares characteristics of curved strokes at various turning points. More importantly, the configuration of the characters as they are assembled demonstrates a sense of rhythm. In other words, if people view the full stela as a whole, they will find the arrangement of the characters to be harmonious but the text may not have any discernible linguistic meaning. This is reflected in the arrangement of the writing as well. The craftsman who sealed the plate also adjusted the structure of the characters to make them more consistent with the ones surrounding them. As a consequence, the lines can occasionally be neither horizontal nor vertical so, as a textual language, it is nonsensical. The skew strokes combine with each other to form a balanced structure. The “Yuan An” plate is a great example of characters with curved lines and a balanced structure.

In the Han Script, by contrast, the majority of characters in the Clerical Script have a 90-degree turning point, and the strokes are mostly vertical or horizontal.[13] Moreover, each character may take a fixed unit of square area which makes the stela well organized.  This is related to the style of the Han Script. It regularly used flexible and easier controllable hairbrushes to write, for example, writers were able to ‘produce effects of final wavelike diagonal strokes of some characters’ and the written language started to take standardized form.[11] Officials in the Han Dynasty were managed with strict rules and regulations.[15] Therefore, characters in the Han Script shared characteristics of rectangular shapes. However, the ongoing use of the curved Seal Script may be an effect of the rise in the sense of rebellion and cherishing the memory of past dynasties. And this balanced structure may then become appreciated by people as a form of political resistance. 

Moreover, the structure of the Seal Script from the Han Dynasty is very similar to the Seal Script before the Qin Script (i.e.Large-Seal Script), but some features are closer to the clerical Script. Although yangwen characters are cut in relief and yinwen characters are made by incision,[16] the curving and balanced structure features of the Han Script are closer to the Clerical Script. Both Han Script and Clerical Script characters are in highly rectilinear structures. And the ratio between the upper part of the Han Script character and its lower part is  2:3.[1]

There are artists after the Han Dynasty who use a style of clerical Script in the Han Script to write Seal Script. Since there are six types of the Script in total (Cursive Script, Cunning Script, Clerical Script, Standard Script, Seal Script, and early Oracle Bone InScriptions), there is increasing interaction between different styles and types of Script from the Qin Dynasty (221 - 207 B.C.E), to Eastern Han Dynasty (25 - 220 C.E.), to Song Dynasty (960 - 1279 C.E.) to later during the 11th century.[4] After the style of characters in some dynasties had been imitated and artwork was created based on the structure of different Scripts, more personal styles were developed. Well-known calligraphers such as Wang Xi Zhi, Yan Zhen Qin, and Wu Chang Shuo have established their own styles for different types of Scripts.

Hypothesis 3: 

The Seal Script may have been a form of art when it is created in the Xia Script 

It could be assumed that Seal Script was originally regarded as art, or, that there wasn’t a shift at all from language to art.  The stones that were used for Sealing characters in the Xia and Shang dynasties (Xia Dynasty: 2070-1600. BCE Shang Dynasty: 1600-1046 BCE, Qin Dynasty: 221-207 BCE) were unpreferable for Seal carving, causing cracks that made the stelas less artistic. Another explanation for why Seal carvings in the Xia and Shang dynasties have cracks may be related to their history. Recently, there are scholars who think there is a well-developed Seal Script system in the Xia Script from the discovery of the  Erlitou Ruins.[17] After Shang overthrew the rule of the Xia Script, the system used in the Xia was believed to remain in use in the Shang Script with little modification.  The major purpose of the Seal Script during both the Xia and Shang dynasties was divination (an occult activity that speculates on the future or explores things by supernatural or arithmetical methods) or religious activity. The people in the Shang Script would burn the bones that they used to Seal the characters and the results of divination would be determined by analyzing the cracks.[18]

Interestingly, the large Seal Script used in the Xia and Shang dynasties had irregular shapes and mostly curved lines. These characteristics overlapped with the later structure of the Seal Script in the Han Script (the Xia Script is the first Script in Chinese history, followed by the Shang, Zhou, Qin, and Han Script).[19] This suggested that the Seal Script in the Han and Xia dynasties was a form of art, and the Qin Script was the special moment when the Seal Script was utilized as a text-based language since the functions of the Seal Script went beyond divination.

Therefore, Seal Script would have been associated with an art form since it was invented. (Although the exact time Seal Script was invented is still a mystery, it is believed to be around the Xia Dynasty). Since the function of Seal Script and text was mainly divination, people may have created aesthetic characters that they thought were beautiful on turtle shells used for divination.[20]  This would have been a similar mechanism to satisfying the emperor when recording his achievements. While people in the Qin Script Sealed good-looking characters on the stela to satisfy the king,[21] people in the Xia and Shang Script who Sealed fine-carved Seal Script on turtle shells may have hoped to get the best possible results of divination. Due to the belief that people thought tangible objects would be offered for goods once they are burned and gods can see a person’s alternative future, those people would tend to beautify their characters to make God more willing to give them good advice.[22]

In conclusion:

Seal Script is a type of Script that has characteristics of both symbolic language and hieroglyphs. This Script is believed to have originated in the Xia Dynasty (Xia Dynasty: 2070-1600 B.C.E.), but it is still unclear what time period the Seal Script was transformed from a text language to an art form. According to the historical records and background of the dynasties and the discoveries of various cultural relics by anthropologists, several possible time periods are proposed and discussed throughout this paper. 

One of the hypotheses states that Seal Script evolved into a form of art in the Qin Script. During the Qin Script, the art of characters is developed due to either the emperor’s personal desire or trends of officials to beautify the words and characters. Another hypothesis proposes that the Han Script is the time when the Seal Script transformed. This is because the Seal Script is no longer used as a language for communication or recording. Therefore it would have probably existed in the Xia Script and maybe was always already an art form. There is evidence such as the “Yunnan” plate, which supports this claim. Lastly, it is also possible that the Seal Script was initially invented in the Xia Script, maybe and or always a mechanism for divination. . All these hypotheses are reasonable, although the exact time if there was one when the Seal Script transformed from a language to a form of art, is too far from now. The evidence is not sufficient enough to prove anyone's hypothesis. However, it is important to keep all possibilities in mind when reading contemporary or present-day histories of Seal Script going forward.



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