By Wu Ziru
Even for those who love ancient Chinese art and culture, Chinese seals often remain a mystery, with their long history and various styles. A recently-published book offers an interesting insight into this very particular Chinese art form.
Published in Chinese and English by Foreign Languages Press, The History and Art of Chinese Seals by Sun Weizu, a Shanghai-based expert on Chinese seals, aims to meet the demand of both professionals and seal enthusiasts to help them to understand not only the artistic, but also the historical and social background behind the articles.
With numerous color pictures and a large amount of text gathered from across the world in the past seven years, Sun gives a vivid and comprehensive rendering on the origins and development of Chinese seals over their 3,000-year history, providing a new angle in which to comprehensively understand the traditional Chinese art.
A research fellow at Shanghai Museum and Art Institute of Chinese Seal Engraving under the Chinese Academy of Arts, Sun has dedicated himself to observing the history and art of Chinese seals for several decades and he has published a wide range of articles and papers.
"Today there are many people showing interest in Chinese seals, but most of them tend to focus on the art of seal engraving they bear only," Sun told the Global Times. "Actually they shoulder much wider historical connotations and this aspect has long been neglected both by experts and ordinary seal enthusiasts."
He added that not only foreign enthusiasts and experts know little about the functions of Chinese seals, but many Chinese people have a great misunderstanding toward seals, regarding them only as a pure art form.
Seals can often be used as materials to verify history, which is particularly important, Sun said. "Compared to texts or other materials that are unearthed, sometimes seals are more reliable, with the style of the seal and words themselves enough explanation."
In China, using seals can be dated back to the late Shang Dynasty (C.1600-1046BC), when they were first used for official business, as a token of office and authority. An official document had to be stamped with a seal of a particular design and wording or it could be regarded as false.
During thousands of years of feudal society in China, one of the most important seals was Xi, which was exclusively owned by the emperor alone and was delivered to his successor as an object to verify that he had been given the right to rule the empire.
Later, seals were widely developed into the private sector and were used among men of literature and art as a way of authenticating their identity. With delicate designs and characters, the art of seal engraving was also developed and Chinese seals gradually became an independent art form outside their official capacity, ranking as one of the four Chinese traditional arts, which also includes painting, poetry and calligraphy.
"What the small articles tell us are far from just personal aesthetics of certain individual owners, but the whole society behind them," Sun said. "Observing the development of Chinese seals, we can get a clear clue of Chinese history, from the change of dynasties to social life."
Sun explained that although more and more attention is now being paid to Chinese seals, with sales price records frequently broken in the international art market, the value of Chinese seals is still largely underestimated, especially when compared with other traditional Chinese art forms such as calligraphy and painting.
A piece of calligraphy that was identified as an imitation of acclaimed Jin Dynasty (265-420) master Wang Xizhi, was sold for more than 300 million yuan ($45 million) at China Guardian's autumn sales this year. Two stamps by Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) emperor Qianlong played a very important role in adding to its value.
Although it is now generally agreed that it was not an original work by Wang Xizhi, it is still very precious, for few of Wang's works have survived until today and Emperor Qianlong's stamps helped to validate its authenticity, Sun said.
"Here the seals play very important roles as both authenticating and upgrading aesthetic values to the calligraphy work," Sun commented. "You can hardly neglect their importance, as we all know."
Sun said that as more and more people come to understand and appreciate the function of Chinese seals, he expects prices to get much higher in the near future.
Book tag: The History and Art of Chinese Seals, Foreign Languages Press, 573pp, price: 420 yuan ($63).