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Seal carving (篆刻, てんこく, tenkoku)

Seal carving is one of the ancient Chinese methods of “writing” calligraphy. The most primordial script, oracle bone script (甲骨文, こうこつぶん, kōkotsubun), was incised on bones prior to rubbing the text with cinnabar or charcoal. Later on, kinbun (金文, きんぶん, i.e “text on metal”), which together with oracle bone script belongs to the family of great seal script (大篆, だいてん, daiten), was also “carved” with a stylus in a soft clay tablet prior to casting bronze vessels. Significantly, seal carving art utilizes seal script as a medium.

The first seals were already being crafted during the Shang dynasty (商朝, 1600 - 1046 B.C.), and were carved in animal bones, bronze, ceramics, etc. They were used for official purposes, mainly by the emperor and government officials. Today, seals are made of various materials, including stone (mainly), wood, gold, etc. They are often richly decorated with sculptures cleverly created in harmony with natural markings or features of the material they are carved in (as with the case of decorative inkstones (硯, すずり, suzuri)).

Seal carving requires not only vast calligraphy knowledge, but also skill in sculpting. This is why the good seal carvers can charge a lot for their services, and are sought by many calligraphers.

Seals are widely used in everyday life in the Orient (by businesses, official government seals, private seals, etc.), but they always bear a symbolic meaning in the art of calligraphy. Please refer to hanko (判子, はんこ, i.e. “seal”) to read more about seals, their types and various purposes.

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Page last modified on November 04, 2011, at 09:09 AM