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Glimpses into the Past: Chinese Seals and Seal Impression Catalogues through the Dynasties

The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology Lee Shau Kee Library and Division of Humanities jointly present

May 7 – October 30, 2020 | The Hong Kong Chiu Chow Chamber of Commerce Ko Pui Shuen Gallery

Opening Hours: Monday – Friday: 9:00 a.m. – 5:00 p.m.; Saturday, Sunday and Public Holidays: Closed

(Due to campus access controls, visitors who do not have a valid University card please pre-register by sending an e-mail to or call 2358-6710 prior to coming for a visit.)

Glimpses into the Past: Chinese Seals and Seal Impression Catalogues through the Dynasties

“Glimpses into the Past” offers a journey through time in the world of seals, ancient and modern.

The carving and use of seals have a long history in China dating back to the Spring Autumn (770-476 BCE) and Warring States (475-221 BCE) periods. Over a period of more than three thousand years, seals have shed their functional character and become a unique art of special aesthetic quality. Seals and their legends are esteemed by connoisseurs and collectors because the aesthetic rules governing their appreciation are largely the same as those applied to calligraphy and painting.

The exhibition features “jiyu” seals, or “seals with auspicious words”, along with official and private seals from the Qin (221-207 BCE) and Han (206 BCE-220 CE) dynasties onward, as well as more recent works by modern seal carvers. Seal impression albums, or “yinpu” (印譜), are exhibited side by side so that viewers can follow the evolution of seal carving across time.

“Jiyu” seals, also known as “idiom” seals, can be further divided into two categories according to their legends. The first category, that of “seals with auspicious words” (吉語璽), is carved with words such as 有金 (Have gold) and 萬歲 (Long live). The second category is that of “motto” seals (箴言璽) which bear phrases such as 敬事 (Work with dedication and diligence), 思言 (Longing for advice), 正行 (Act properly), 高志 (Cherish high aspirations), 有志 (Be ambitious), and 宜民和眾 (Beneficial and harmonious for the people). As such, “jiyu” seals provide important references for understanding ancient thought and social customs.

Jiyu seals, official seals, and private seals together constitute China’s distinctive ancient seal culture. The official seals displayed in the exhibition date from the Qin (221-207 BCE), Han (206 BCE – 220 CE), Wei (220-265) and Jin (265-420) dynasties. Distinguished by refined writing styles and exquisite carving techniques, official seals also serve as concrete evidence for the civil service system and government structures of successive dynasties.

After the Song (960-1279) and Yuan (1279-1368) periods, the use of private seals came into vogue. Named “yayin” (押印) or “signature stamps”, in later times, private seals are engraved with full personal names, symbols, pictorial forms, auspicious phrases, etc. These private seals not only served the function of establishing social credibility, they also provide important materials for studying the arts and crafts of the Song and Yuan periods.

In addition to ancient seals, this exhibition also includes pieces by famous modern seal carvers. Displayed in chronological order, these works together reflect the development of the art of seal engraving from ancient times till today.

Seal impression albums is the general term for collections of impressed seal legends. These albums may contain legends from official and private seals of different dynasties as well as examples by master seal engravers. As a medium for transmitting the ancient art of seal carving, imprints of seal legends in these albums facilitate scholarly research, appreciation by connoisseurs, and provide classical examples for seal carvers to copy for practice .

The compilation of seal impression albums began towards the end of the Northern Song (960-1127), reached a peak at the end of the Ming (1368-1644), and continued to increase during the Qing (1644-1911). Counting seal impression albums recorded in written sources and those held in various collections, we know that no less than 3,000 titles were compiled in China by the mid-20th century.

Seal impression albums in this exhibition will be displayed in two phases. Thirty-plus types of albums featuring the legends of ancient seals and famous seals by modern seal carvers of different schools will be shown first. The second phase focuses on manuscript seal impression albums. Surviving only in small numbers, manuscript albums are extremely rare and precious. This exhibition at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will be the first time that manuscript seal impression albums have ever been publicly displayed, and will surely be an eye-opening experience not to be missed.

Lam Cheung Chung in Songyinxuan Studio
Hong Kong