Chinese Seal Carving

Chinese Stamps Engraving in Stones

seal-fungcheung Origin and Development

In the Yuen dynasty {元朝} (1280-1368 A.D.) scholar Wang Mien {王冕} was the first to use soft stones for seal carving. Since then, seal carving has become the art of the scholars and played a very important place in the art of calligraphy and painting down to the present time.

seal-fungcheung Kinds of Chinese Seal Carving

In China, the engraving on stones may be pictures or Chinese characters; in other words, there are picture seals {肖形印} and character seals {姓名印、閒印}. The earliest known records of pictorial carving date back to the Warring States {戰國} (476-221 B.C.). The pictures were mainly animals and human figures. While the practice of engraving pictures has continued since then, it is the carving of characters, and more specifically seal script characters, that dominate the art of seal carving.

seal-fungcheung Scripts used for Seal Carving: the Seal Script

Although many people both in the past and in the present show different kinds of calligraphy in seal carving, such as Regular, Running, Cursive, Clerical and Seal (Great and small), the Small Seal Script {小篆} is generally regarded as the most suitable one for the purpose. Great Seal Script {大篆}, a form of characters older than the Small Seal Script is not that suitable because of its unwieldy form and its limited vocabulary. Running and Cursive Script have not been very successfully applied to carving while Regular and Clerical Scripts, for various reasons, are not as popular as the Small Seal Script which is elegant in appearance, symmetrical in composition and has an archaic simplicity.

seal-fungcheung Learning Seal Carving

A seal (or stamp) is well carved for the well designed characters / compostion

  • it appears natural and elegant;
  • it can arouses the spirit and the imagination;
  • it has archaic simplicity and a balanced distrigution of white and red spaces;
  • it shows harmony and evenness in the distribution of various strokes.

The seal is not considered good if it lacks these qualities, even though it may look neat and delicate, or if craftsmanship predominates over artistry.

To successfully learn seal carving, one should first acquire a basic knowledge of Chinese calligraphy, especially Seal Script. This is necessary because seal carving and calligraphy are sisters to each other. Also, one should study examples of good seals, such as the collections of seals from famous artists and albums of rubbings from ancient imprints, thus learning to recognize surface designs and carving skills.

Finally one can then start carving on soft stones choosing at first characters with very few strokes and keeping on until the proper skills are acquired.

Before turning to the more practical discussion of the technical skills related to seal carving, some preliminary remarks are necessary.

  • The carving of a seal may have a practical aim such as to record a name{姓名印}, a place of birth, an artist’s studio {齋館印} and so on; it can also be done in a more poetic mood to engraved sentiments such as desires and hopes, or a short poem, proverb or maxim.
  • In all cases, the aesthetic value of the carving is the predominant factor to be considered.

seal-fungcheung Two forms of engraving: relief (yang) and intaglio (yin)

The carving in relief is known as carving in Yang Wen {陽文}, that is having the strokes in Red {朱文}; carving in intaglio is known as carving in Yin Wen {陰文}, or carving in blank {白文} (void). In the past, Imperial Seals were usually carved in relief; nowadays, artists may choose either form to suit their own taste and liking.

seal-fungcheung Shape of Seals

The seals may adopt any form, regular or irregular: the surface for carving may be circular, square, rectangular, oval, triangular, rhombic or polyhedral while the engraving of the characters can be done on many of the stone surfaces.

seal-fungcheung Stones for Seal Carving

Many kinds of materials could be used for carving: animal bone, tortoise shell, bronze, gold, silver, animal horn, ivory, clay, tile and of course, precious stones such as jade. However many of these materials are no longer used because they entail too many technical problems or do not embed easily the spirit of the carver: hardness or other material characteristics make it impossible for the artist to reveal the taste of bronze and stone {金石味}. Materials such as wood, clay, tile, animal horns etc. are now used occasionally by craftsman and but not much by artists in seal carving.

The most suitable material is the rather softer stones such as Ching-tin {青田} and Shou-shan {壽山} from the Chek-kiang {浙江} and Fukien {福建} provinces (South Eastern coast of China) which yield readily to the carving knife. As mentioned before, different shapes of seal surfaces can be used for the purpose of carving and there is no size limitation. Some stones are plain while others may be decorated with animal or human figures. A very interesting type of seal carving stone is known as the mother and child {子母印} set with detachable smaller stones encased in the larger stones.

seal-fungcheung Tools and Materials

  • stone 印石
    The softer ones such as those mentioned before (Ching-tin & Shou-shan) should be used; the surface for engraving should be about 1 square inch (2,5 cm).
  • carving knife 刻刀
    Many sizes and degrees of sharpness are available; however it is better to use the one that the carver feels the most comfortable with.
  • sandpaper
    Both the fine and the coarse grades are required; and these are used for polishing the stone surfaces.
  • red ink pad 印泥
    Used for inking the seal. The best ones are made from a pad of dried moxa plant fibers soaked with powdered cinnabar dissolved in seed oil; it is colorfast.

seal-fungcheung Preparing the Stone

  • surface polishing 整理印面
    The surface to be carved is fist sandpapered and polished until it is smooth enough. Then all traces of powder are brushed off from the surface of the stone.
  • surface designing 經營位置
    • The surface of the stone to be carved is pressed against a piece of soft and absorbent paper so that the boundaries of the surface are visible. The boundary line on the paper should now be traced out.
    • As the surface of the stone to be carved is very limited, planning and designing beforehand are very important. The composition should reveal a proper distribution of strokes in each character. The relative positions of the characters should be carefully adjusted. The distribution of red and blank spaces should be carefully taken into account.
    • Select the characters required. As Chinese characters may be composed of any number of strokes which are dots, lines, curves, hooks and so on, those characters with fewer strokes should be written in bolder and heavier than those with a greater number of strokes.
  • transferring characters on the seal surface 落墨
    • Having written the desired characters, place the paper onto the surface of the stone so that the inked outline matches the boundaries of the seal surface holding the virgin portions of the paper firmly on the sides of the stone with one hand.
    • Then moisten that portion of the paper which is in contact with the seal surface. Next apply another piece of soft and absorbent paper on the wetted surface rubbing it slightly and evenly with the fingernail for a minute or two.
    • Then lift the two pieces of paper vertically upwards. The seal characters are now imprinted on the stone surface.

seal-fungcheung Carving the Stone

  • knife-work
    Throughout the long history of the art of seal carving, artists have realized that proficiency in calligraphy is transferable to seal carving. Hence the time honored advice to seal carvers is to treat the stone as paper and the knife as a brush. {視石如紙,視刀如筆,刀法盡之矣}
    • To be skillful in the art of carving, one should know the two important ways of holding the knife:
      • double hook method 雙鉤法
        The knife is held firmly by the thumb and the two first fingers; the ring finger is held behind the knife and is used as anchoring point. This method is suitable for carving seals of ordinary sizes.
      • gripping method 握刀法
        In this method, the knife is held firmly in the palm of the hand while all the five fingers are tightly closed. This grip can be used for carving seals of comparatively large sizes.
    • In writing characters, there is almost always a fixed order in doing the strokes. Thus the Chinese character ‘one’ ( 一 ) consists of only one horizontal stroke which is a straight line written from left to right. However, in carving, the order of the strokes is determined by the fact that, since every movement of the knife should be in the direction of the carver’s body, the stone has to be turned and rotated frequently.
  • cutting style
    There are two main cutting styles: the single cut and the double cut.
    • single cut style 單刀法
      Here the knife cuts inside the ink line defining the stroke; it is used for carving seals in intaglio (Yin Wen)
    • double cut style 雙刀法
      Here the knife cuts at both edges of the ink line defining the stroke; it is used for carving both in the intaglio and relief manners.

seal-fungcheung Side incisions and side colophons

When the artist wants to inscribe his name, a date or something more than the text of the seal surface, he can do so on one or more of the remaining surfaces of the stone. This kind of inscription is less formal than the one done on the seal surface. The characters in the side colophons are usually incised in Running Script. There are certain general rules for inscribing side colophons. Given that:

  • the seal stone in being held in a vertical position with the seal surface beneath (as it would be positioned to stamp the paper)
  • that the carver looking at the top of the stone
  • One colophon
  • face to carve — left
  • Two colophons
  • face to carve first — left
  • face upon which to finish — outward
  • direction of movement — clockwise
  • Three colophons
  • face to carve first — left
  • face upon which to finish — right
  • direction of movement — clockwise
  • Four colophons
  • face to carve first — left
  • face upon which to finish — inward
  • direction of movement — clockwise
  • Five colophons
  • face to carve first — left
  • face upon which to finish — top
  • direction of movement — clockwise and upwards

seal-fungcheung Side knocking and chipping

Sometimes, in order to give the appearance of archaic simplicity and naturalness, the carver carefully knocks and chips the edges of the seal surface. However this should not be overdone. If after chipping and chiseling, the corners and edges appear too rugged, they should be smoothed slightly.

seal-fungcheung Seal's Imprints

Seals should be imprinted only on silk or soft absorbent paper. In order to imprint a Chinese seal properly, one should begin by repeatedly pressing the seal surface against the ink pad. Then the seal surface should be carefully and firmly applied to the desired position. For better results, some pieces of soft paper should be placed underneath the paper to be imprinted. One has to apply vertical pressure evenly on all sides of the seal using a very slight rocking movement while being carefully not to make a smudge on the paper or silk surface. After use, the seal must be wiped clean with a soft absorbent material before storing it in the padded container designed for its protection.