Chin (221 - 207 B.C.) & Han (206 B.C. - 220 A.D.) Dynasties

Chin Dynasty (221-207 BC)


Between the Zhou and Chin Dynasties, seals were very, very tiny and they were called “Hsiao Mu” or “Chin Hsiao Mu.” The scripts of Hsiao Mu varied drastically so most of them are not decipherable.  The scripts were close to Small Zuan.


When Chin Shu Huang, the first emperor of the Chin Dynasty, unified China in 221 BC, he began using seals as symbols of imperial authority. One of his seals, made of fine jade with a knob in the form of a dragon, bore the inscription: "The Emperor glorious and long-lived, the recipient of heaven's command".

Seals became popular in the Chin Dynasty when people engraved their names on utensils and documents to claim ownership or for verification of social status. At this time, there were eight kinds of scripts used in the Chin Dynasty including Big Zuan, Small Zuan, Worm Script, Li Shu, and etc. Chin Shu Huang set up a governmental department to monitor Xi Seal and the feudal system of officials’ seals. He ordered the seals of the Emperor to be called “Xi” and must be made of jade; the seals of the officials and people could only be made with copper and be called “Inn.” Thus, “Inn” were used to distinguish the ranks of officials.


Han Dynasty (206 BC - 220 AD)

During the first year of Han Gao Zu’s reign (206 BC), he set up government operations to make seals and symbols.

In the early West Han Dynasty, seal making followed the Chin Dynasty custom by adding columns or grids around the scripts.

In 121, Hsu Sen published “Suo Wen Je Zu”. It’s a book that exemplifies revolution of Chinese characters and it is a must for serious Zuan Shu calligraphers and seal engravers.

During the Han Dynasty, as paper became more popular people started to stain seal engravings with colors, and then print them onto papers. For this purpose, red ink paste was created. In ancient days, correspondences were usually written on bamboo strips or wood rolls. To keep the contents confidential, people would tie the bamboo strips together with strings and cover the bundle with a specially designed wooden trough sealed with mud. A symbolic seal would then be pressed against the mud to leave an identification mark. The seal engravings for this purpose had to be done with deep carvings so that the markings would be clear and firm. This is called the Mud Seal (“Fon Ni” or “Ni Fon”.)  


Side and Upper Views of A Mud Seal


Up to the Eastern Han Dynasty (25-330), the color of ink used to affix official seals was regulated depending on the position of the owner. So officials had to use green ink or other colors like purple or yellow.


Official Seals in East Han Dynasty


In both the Chin and Han Dynasties, seal engraving reached its peak and the works became the learning resources for later seal engravers.


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