Chinese seals

Chinese seals

Height: 5.700 cm (both)

Asia OA SL 418, 894

These two seals were once in the collection of Sir Hans Sloane. One is made of quartz crystal and shows a 'dog of Fo' (a Buddhist lion dog). The other, made of red soapstone, has seal characers for long life.

Seals were made in China from at least the late Zhou period (fourth to third century BC) for official, artistic, literary, commercial and personal purposes. They were commonly used instead of a signature. The seals were made from any material that could be carved or moulded, including bronze, silver, stone, horn and wood. In about the fourteenth century AD, soapstone (steatite) was found to be particularly good and is still used today. Seals made of attractive hardstones, such as the 'dog of Fo', were considered to have both aesthetic and intellectual appeal.

The script used on seals evolved from inscriptions. The earliest surving inscriptions are found on oracle bones dating to around 1300 BC, while good examples of inscriptions on bronze ritual vessels survive from the Western Zhou (about 1050-771 BC). Seal script became standardized during the Qin dynasty (221-206 BC).

Enlightenment scholars were interested in Chinese scripts as a sort of universal writing that worked from a pictographic base, but which were quite different from the spoken languages of China. Chinese scripts were also of particular interest as the oldest writing system still in use.

On display: Enlightenment: Ancient scripts