What is Seal Script Calligraphy?
By Aïda Yuen Wong, Professor of Art History at Brandeis University; Founder and Head of Design of Callimode, an Asian American contemporary jewelry brand specializing in luxury designs to express antiracism in Asian calligraphy. Ethical & Sustainable Jewelry with Recycled Gold and Non-Conflict Diamonds.
October 28, 2022
Definition of Seal Script
Seal script was a formal script invented in Bronze-age China that made its debut in prestige objects such as elite weapons, musical instruments, and ritual vessels for ceremonial sacrifices. This script, eventually amounting to several thousand individual characters, represents some of the oldest writings in the ancient world, of which antiquarians have been able to decipher a portion. As a script originally meant to be cast or carved into hard surfaces, seal script does not depend on varying line thicknesses or wet-and-dry strokes to achieve its greatest effect. An earlier form and a later manifestations of the seal script, called the "Great Seal Script" and the "Small Seal Script" respectively, differ in their degrees of complexity and regularity. Generally speaking the Great Seal Script contains more distinctly pictographic elements that strike the modern eye as delightful glimpses into the imaginative minds of the ancient linguists. Some characters are quite intricate, resembling worms, birds, and other animals. This is not to say that early Chinese writings were wholly pictographic. Some of the graphs refer to concepts and sounds.
Maogong Ding (Cauldron of the Duke of Mao), Late Western Zhou Dynasty Late Western Zhou Dynasty (1046-771 BC), China. Collection of the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.
As the seal script evolved from the Shang (ca. 1600-1045 BCE) to the Zhou (1046-256 BCE) and the Qin Dynasties (221-206 BCE), its form would become more controlled and organized, lending itself to bureaucratic needs and more unified modes of communication. The Small Seal Script, also called the Qin Seal Script, comes closer to clerical and regular scripts in its distinct abstraction and can be deciphered by the modern reader more easily.
The seal script found on ancient bronzes are also called Bronze Script. "Seal Script" or zhuanshu (篆書) as a term was coined in the Han dynasty (202 BCE-220 CE), when this archaic style of writing has largely been replaced by even more abstract script types in formal and informal writing, but was retained in certain contexts, most prominently on seals. Even today, seal script is a must-learn script for seal carving (zhuanke 篆刻). No longer confined to metal and stone surfaces, practitioners of seal carving and seal script calligraphy are free to depart from the stiffer and more uniform line qualities of the past, as they adapt the script to brush-and-ink expressions.
The seal script, due to its archaism and picture-like elements, is a beloved script type for calligraphers who see writing more as a visual art. Many viewers nowadays will have some trouble reading it, especially the Great Seal Script. The art of seal script calligraphy can be solemn or playful, depending on the characters and the overall composition.
To emulate the original seal scripts, calligraphers follow several general principles. The shape of each character should be elongated, longer than it is wide. There is no deliberate pauses at the corners or emphatic presses. In other words, one writes with the brush tip largely perpendicular to the surface, a handling called "center tip" (中鋒). There are meandering and curved elements that require the hand to turn unnaturally. Calligraphers have devised their own ways of driving the brush such as stopping in the middle of a circle and starting from another point to close the circle.
Even though the seal script is not as "calligraphic" as the clerical, running, and the cursive script, it has its own unique challenges. One cannot hope to brush a good piece of seal script without considerable concentration and patience. For the same reason, it is also a wonderful vehicle to concentrate the mind. The ideal would be to churn out character after character with evenly controlled lines, as though writing with a Sharpie marker, despite the natural resistance of a soft brush to such evenness.
To break the monotony, it has become common for calligraphers to experiment with different expressive qualities while keeping in mind the correctness of the script. One should avoid miswriting a character for the sake of creativity. Seal script calligraphers usually have a calligraphy dictionary at hand to guide them. A successful work of seal script calligraphy should be antique in appearance and novel in feeling.
The earliest seal script, already in existence since the 11th and 10th centuries BCE, tended to be short notations. These passages identify specific persons, times, and events, and occasionally functioned as talismans. One of the most beloved artifacts of seal script calligraphy are found on a set of drum-shaped stones that date to the mid-8th century. The number of characters used at one time vary according to needs. The arrangement of the characters would become standardized, that is, to be read from top to bottom, right to left. This order of reading would remain constant for Chinese, Japanese, and Korean writings until modern times.
With the growing prestige of the written word and the increased desire to document and communicate messages in writing across the territories, the vocabulary of seal script texts continued to grow in the Qin dynasty. The First Emperor of the Qin Dynasty found the diversity of the seal scripts used by the different kingdoms during the previous Warring States period to be too confusing, and therefore must be replaced by something more uniform. The same sovereign who ordered the linking of a series of pre-existing defensive walls into the Great Wall of China, the First Emperor assigned his Prime Minister Li Si the task of creating what would be known as the Qin script or the Small Seal Script. Some the characters were derived from earlier script forms and others invented.
Seal Script Calligraphy by Deng Shiru c. 1739/1743–1805, Qing Dynasty, China.
The vertically stretched and symmetrical tendencies of the seal script is much admired for its balanced structure, with the tops of the characters tight and the bottoms loose, creating an even greater sense of loftiness and elegant poise. In the early Han dynasty, the small seal script remained current, though the simpler clerical script was gaining popularity and eventually taking over as the formal script. The seal script continued to be used especially in seal carving throughout history and enjoyed periodic revivals as calligraphers took it up as an art form. Some of the well-known masters of the seal script included Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) of the Yuan dynasty, Deng Shiru (1743-1805) of the Qing dynasty and Wu Changshi (Wu Changshuo) (1844-1927) of the late Qing-early Republican period. The last is best known for his creative renditions of the Stone Drum Script. Versatile modern Japanese masters such as Aoyama San'u (1912-1993) also freely adapt Chinese historical scripts including the seal script. to their own taste.