Seal carving, also seal cutting, or zhuanke in Chinese (篆刻), is a traditional form of art that originated in China, and later spread to East Asia. It refers to cutting a pattern into the bottom face of the seal (the active surface, used for stamping), rather than the sides or top. Dictionary definitions speak more loosely of the process as seal engraving.
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In the Shang Dynasty, seals started being used in the government offices, where they represented authority and power. During the Shang and Zhou Dynasties, the material for seal making was mainly animal bones, copper (bronze) and pottery, and there were specially trained, sophisticated artisans or craftsmen, including potters majored in this work - making seals. Because seals in this period were mainly used in governments and mainly by nobles and officials, the style of seals should be very formal and beautiful. In the Shang Dynasty, the oracle bone script (Chin: 甲骨文) was used, and during the Zhou period, various scripts (because the Chinese characters were still not unified then) but mainly Dazhuan (chin: 大篆) or Jinwen (Chin: 金文) were used.
In the Qin Dynasty, the more regular and formal seal script called Xiaozhuang (Chin: 小篆) was formalized by the Chancellor Li Si and was announced by the Emperor Qinshihuang, thus the written script of Chinese characters was unified for the first time. Due to the development of Chinese architecture, seals of this period were also widely used in building materials, e.g. after finishing a tile or a brick, the maker normally stamped his seal on the surface. This can be seen on the antiques of this period. Such seals, beside indicating the producers' names, time or place, already have various styles, reflecting the personal characteristics of the manufacturers.
In the Song Dynasty, scholar-artists flourished, and seal making became popular. Since this era, soap stones have been widely used in seal cutting. Stones from Qingtian, currently Zhejiang Province, are named Qingtian Seal-stone (Chin: 青田印石); and the soap stones named Shoushan Seal-stone (Chin: 壽山印石) from Fujian were also widely used. Some artisans became experts, creating numerous carving styles. Also during this period, seals started being used as signature for paintings and works of calligraphy.
In the Yuan Dynasty, seal cutting was already a very developed art. The Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty were two golden periods for the art of seal cutting. In the Qing Dynasty, soap stones from Mongolia named Balin seal-stone (Chin: 巴林印石) began to be used. Nowadays, a work of Chinese painting or calligaphy normally has its seal(s).
- Zhe School (浙派): based in Zhejiang Province, usually as Zhe School for short, or as Xiling School, after the influential artist society Xiling Seal Art Society. Dominant in Ming and Qing Dynasties.
- Hui School/Wan School (徽派/皖派): based in Anhui Province, dominant in Ming and Qing Dynasties.
- Hai School (海派): based in Shanghai, named after the city. Became dominant in late Qing Dynasty and Republic of China period.
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- Seal (Chinese): a more general view of the topic.
- Knob carving: Seal art focusing on the head of a seal.
- Side carving: Seal art focusing on the vertical-sides of a seal.
- The Oxford Dictionary defines a seal as 'an engraved device used for stamping a seal'