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A seal, in an East Asian context, is a general name for printing stamps and impressions thereof that are used in lieu of signatures in personal documents, office paperwork, contracts, art, or any item requiring acknowledgment or authorship. China, Japan, Taiwan, Korea, and Vietnam currently use a mixture of seals and hand signatures, and increasingly, electronic signatures.[1]

Chinese seals are typically made of stone, sometimes of metals, wood, bamboo, plastic, or ivory, and are typically used with red ink or cinnabar paste (Chinese: 朱砂; pinyin: The word 印 ("yìn" in Mandarin, "in" in Japanese and Korean, pronounced the same) specifically refers to the imprint created by the seal, as well as appearing in combination with other ideographs in words related to any printing, as in the Japanese word "insatsu". The colloquial name chop, when referring to these kinds of seals, was adapted from the Hindi word chapa and from the Malay word cap  meaning stamp or rubber stamps.

History

In the past, fingerprints and handprints were used in East Asia for this function, being first impressed in clay, then printed on paper. This has been recorded since the 3rd century BCE in China – continuing for at least a millennium, and by the 8th century CE had spread to Japan. See history of fingerprints for details and reference. An important contrast with seals is that fingerprints and handprints are associated with a person, while seals are often associated with an office, though personal seals are also very common. Earlier similar devices are the cylinder seals used in Babylonia to make impressions on clay tablets.

[edit] Types

Zhuwen (shu bun in Japanese) (S:朱文, lit. "red characters") seals imprint the Chinese characters in red ink, sometimes referred to as yang seals.
  • Baiwen (haku bun in Japanese) (S:白文, lit. "white characters") seals imprint the background in red, leaving white characters, sometimes referred to as yin seals.
  • Zhubaiwen Xiangjianyin (S:朱白文相間印, lit. "red-white characters combined seal") seals use zhuwen and baiwen togetherEmperors of China, their families and officials used large seals known as xign (璽), later renamed bo (寶, "treasure"), which corresponds to the Great Seals of Western countries. These were usually made of jade (although hard wood or precious metal could also be used), and were originally square in shape. They were changed to a rectangular form during the Song Dynasty, but reverted to square during the Qing Dynasty.

The most important of these seals was the Heirloom Seal of the Realm, which was created by the first Emperor of China, Qin Shihuang, and was seen as a legitimising device embodying or symbolising the Mandate of Heaven. The Heirloom Seal was passed down through several dynasties, but was lost by the beginning of the Ming Dynasty. This partly explains the Qing Emperors' obsession with creating numerous imperial seals - for the Emperors' official use alone the Forbidden City in Beijing has a collection of 25 seals - in order to reduce the significance of the Heirloom Seal.

These seals typically bore the titles of the offices, rather than the names of the owners. Different seals could be used for different purposes: for example, Emperor Qianlong had a number of informal appreciation seals [乾隆御覽之寶] used on select paintings in his collection.

The most popular style of script for government seals in the imperial ages of China (from Song to Qing) is the jiudie wen ("ninefold script"), a highly stylised font which is unreadable to the untrained.

The government of the Republic of China (Taiwan) has continued to use traditional square seals of up to about 13 centimetres each side, known by a variety of names depending on the user's hierarchy. Part of the inaugural ceremony for the President of the Republic of China includes bestowing on him the Seal of the Republic of China and the Seal of Honor.

In the People's Republic of China, the seal of the Central People's Government from 1949 to 1954[3] was a square, bronze seal with side lengths of 9 centimetres. The inscription reads "Seal of the Central People's Government of the People's Republic of China". Notably, the seal uses the relatively modern Song typeface rather than the more ancient seal scripts, and the seal is called a yìn (印), not a xign (玺), in a nod to modernity. Government seals in the People's Republic of China today are usually circular in shape, and have a five-pointed star in the centre of the circle. The name of the governmental institution is arranged around the star in a semicircle.

 

 


 

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