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What Is Seal Script?

By Meg Higa
Updated May 23, 2024
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Seal script is the common English term given to the first formalized Chinese system of writing. The most common Chinese term for this system is zhuan shu, which roughly translates to “decorative engraving script.” Believed to have been invented around 3,000 B.C., Chinese writing was based on pictographs — the written symbol for “a mountain” was a pictorial representation of a real mountain. With the unification of China as a country around 200 A.D., a dictionary of all Chinese characters was written. This stylized ancient script remains in modern government and corporate use for such things as stamps and seals.

Mountain villagers see and characterize a mountain differently from someone living in the desert. Ancient Chinese pictographic writing systems varied widely by region. With the advent of the Iron Age, China’s regional kingdoms entered the Warring States Period which lasted over 200 years. The westernmost kingdom of Qin prevailed and unified all of China in 221 B.C. Seal script originates from Qin.

China’s First Emperor Qin Shi Huang ordered all evidence of variant systems of writing destroyed, including the burning of books. His Chancellor Li Si was instructed to write, disseminate and enforce the new country’s first standardized dictionary of 3,300 Chinese seal script characters. Some modern scholars point out that Qin had two writing systems, described as large and small seal script. It is the latter which became the predecessor of modern Chinese script. Furthermore, this system of writing spread beyond China to become the ancestral origins of Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese.

The ruthlessness of the first Qin Dynasty, in short order, resulted in a peasant uprising and rebellion against Chinese rulers. This unrest ushered in a long period of peace and cultural prosperity called the Han Dynasty, from 206 B.C. to 220 A.D. Nearly forgotten written characters were recovered and added to the official dictionary, and a final version called the Shuowen Jiezi consisting of over 9,300 characters was compiled. Most modern Chinese people refer to their system of writing as being Han in origin.

When a modern Chinese character is juxtaposed side by side with its ancient seal script counterpart, the resemblance is often notable. Without the comparison, however, it is just guesswork, and most people can not read it. Those who can both read and write using this system include scholars of old texts, artisans of Chinese calligraphy, and engravers of official notary seals and ink stamps called name chops

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