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Hanko (判子, はんこ, i.e. “seal”)

Hanko means “a seal” in Japanese. Seals are very popular in the Far East, and often are used instead of signatures for official documents. In calligraphy we can distinguish many types of seals that can be pressed on a completed work (作品, さくひん, sakuhin).

First, there are four main categories of seals that determine the place on the work they belong to. These are: 姓名印 (せいめい いん, seimei in, i.e. “real name seal”), 雅号印 (がごう いん, gagō in, i.e. “pen name seal”), 引首印 (いんしゅ いん, inshu in, “quote top seal”), and 押脚印 (おうきゃく いん, ōkyaku in, i.e. “footer seal”).

Both seimeiin and gagouin are pressed under or on the left hand side of the signature. Seimein comes first and its characters are carved in intaglio (白文, はくぶん, hakubun, lit. “white text,” as, after pressing, the text remains white). Gagouin is carved in relief (朱文, しゅぶん, shubun, lit. “red text”) and it is being placed below the seimeiin. It is possible to press only a pen name seal; however calligraphy without one of the name seals has no value. Intaglio and relief opposing seals symbolise forces Yin (intaglio) represented by “陰” – the shadow, and Yang (relief) represented by “陽” – the sun.

Inshuin previously was meant to disclose the location of an artist or suggest a place where the given calligraphy was written. Today, calligraphers press a seal with their favourite phrase, idiom, personal poem or reflection. It is known as 詩句印 (しく いん, shiku in, i.e. “verse seal”). Shikuin is also sometimes pressed at the bottom of the page as a “footer seal.” They are also known as leisure or mood seals. Professional calligraphers can own up to a few hundreds such seals.

There are other types of seals, such as 干支印 (かんしいん, kanshi in, i.e. “sexagenarian cycle seal”). It bears one of 60 characters symbolising a year in Chinese astrology, reminding us of strong ancient connotations between the supernatural and the calligraphy.

Seal imprints are of red orange-ish colour which adds vivid accent to a black and white work. Red “ink mud” used for ink pressing is called 印泥 (いんでい, indei), and its most beautiful shading is defined as 美麗 (びれい, birei, i.e. "gorgeous").

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Page last modified on October 27, 2011, at 07:01 PM