Flowing with Grace: The Story of Seal-Script Calligraphy

Ink Rubbing of the Stone Classics in Three Scripts: The Spring and Autumn Annals (AD 222-AD 280) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Calligraphy is a unique form of art in the cultural history of the world. Not only used as writing for communication in daily life, calligraphy in China has also long since developed into a comprehensive and independent system of theory and practice. The course of evolution in Chinese calligraphy and its aesthetic criteria has been a subject of attention for centuries. This exhibition presents a special selection of seal script to introduce one particular style in this art form, its changes that have taken place over time, and the different perspectives for its appreciation.

Full Rubbing of the Mao Gong Ding (BC 1046-BC 771) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Various forms of seal script emerged in China throughout history, including ancient writings on oracle bones, bronzes, pottery, tallies, slips and silk, seal faces, coinage, and in stone engravings.

Roughly speaking, this style of Chinese calligraphy can be divided into large and small seal script. The writing that appeared before the Qin dynasty unified the writing system in the third century BCE is generally referred to as large seal script.

Tile End Rubbing for “Eternal Blessings” (BC 206-AD 220) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

However, clerical script, which had developed and matured between the Qin and Han dynasties, would become the written language of common use. This led to the gradual decline of seal script as the mainstream form of writing, though it was still used for special decorative purposes.

Five-Character Couplet in Seal Script (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Yang Yisun (1813-1881)National Palace Museum

Later, starting in the Northern and Southern Dynasties period, running and regular scripts would become the main forms of written communication. And not until much later, in the Qing dynasty, when ancient writing increasingly came to light from excavations, and combined with the influence of pragmatic trends in learning, did calligraphers begin re-investigating the brush methods of seal script in earnest, leading to new developments in this form of Chinese calligraphy.

Ink Rubbing of The Scripture of the Hidden Talisman in Three Scripts (AD 960-AD 1279) by Guo Zhongshu (917-977)National Palace Museum

Even though seal script long ago departed from everyday use in China, it still survives and flourishes today on the basis of its exceptional artistic qualities.

Song Poetry in Seal Script (AD 960-AD 1279) by Chang Biao (fl. early 13th c.)National Palace Museum

The brush methods of seal script may appear simple and the variations of its curving lines limited, but the arrangements and structures of such characters are quite diverse and beautiful.

Ranging from squarish to flat as well as irregular forms, seal script remains suitable for use in many mediums.

Seven-character Couplet in Seal Script (AD 1644-AD 1911) by Zhao Zhiqian (1829-1884)National Palace Museum

A calligraphy theorist of the Tang dynasty, Sun Guoting (ca. 647-ca. 690), once wrote, "Seal script upholds curving and flowing," identifying two of the obvious and important defining criteria for appreciating it.

Wang Yanzhou's Preface to The Garden of Calligraphy (AD 1911) by Wang Chuang-wei (1909-1998)National Palace Museum

For seal script to attain a realm of curvilinear beauty and graceful flowing, strokes not only need to have fluidity and body, methods of spatial arrangement must also be accommodated, and only then will the unique aesthetic qualities of seal script be manifest. The following is a special selection of seal script from the National Palace Museum collections.

Ding Cauldron of Duke Mao (Late Western Zhou dynasty (1046-772 BCE.)) by UnknownNational Palace Museum

Ding Cauldron of Duke Mao (Mao Gong Ding)

Also known as the Duke of Mao tripod, this bronze cauldron was cast by Duke Yin of Mao in the Zhou dynasty and unearthed in the late Qing dynasty during the Daoguang reign (1820-1850) at Qishan (modern Qishan County) in Shaanxi. The inscription of 499 characters on the bronze records the Duke of Mao's important contributions to state governance at the time.

Full Rubbing of the Mao Gong Ding (BC 1046-BC 771) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Full Rubbing of the Mao Gong Ding

A "full rubbing" is a kind of ink rubbing technique complemented by the arts of line drawing, painting, and paper cutting. In it, the original form of the vessel is transferred to the two-dimensional surface of paper.

The writing is a classic example of so-called "metal script" (referring to inscriptions on bronze cauldrons or bells). The style is precise and the lines refined. The characters are narrow but the spacing even, having a simple and archaic manner.

Tile End Rubbing for “Eternal Blessings” (BC 206-AD 220) by AnonymousNational Palace Museum

Ink Rubbing of an "Eternal Blessings" Tile End

Tile ends first appeared in the Western Zhou dynasty. Attached to the bottom end of tiled roofs, they prevented the tiles above from sliding down. Protecting the eaves, they kept rainwater from leaking inside as well. Not only functional, they were likewise decorative. In addition to plain ones, some were adorned with patterns, animals, and writing.

The rubbing of this tile features "bird-and-insect" seal script for the auspicious phrase of "Eternal blessings." The lines wind and coil around, the spaces between even for an exceptionally artistic manner.

“Thousand Character Essay” in Seal and Clerical Script (AD 1279-AD 1368) by Yu He(1307-1382)National Palace Museum

“Thousand Character Essay” in Seal and Clerical Script

Yu He (style name Zizhong, sobriquet Zizhisheng), a native of Hangzhou in Zhejiang, was a scholar of tranquil character who did not seek fame or fortune. Gifted at poetry, he was also skilled in calligraphy, studying extensively from Jin and Tang dynasty masters to achieve considerable depth and success. In his early years, he was even personally instructed by the master Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), leading to their calligraphy being quite similar.

“Thousand Character Essay” in Seal and Clerical Script (AD 1279-AD 1368) by Yu He(1307-1382)National Palace Museum

This album features alternating rows of the same characters from the “Thousand-Character Classic” in seal and clerical script. Not only does this make it easier to read, it demonstrates the beauty of both calligraphic forms side by side. The characters in seal script are elongated and solid, the lines thin yet upright. On the other hand, the clerical script characters are angular and open, the brushwork careful and regulated for an elegant style.

“Amitabha Buddha” in Seal Script (AD 1911) by Qi Baishi(1864-1957)National Palace Museum

"Amitabha Buddha" in Seal Script

This work by Qi Baishi in stele script features four large characters for the Chinese transliteration of "Amitabha Buddha (Amituofo)." The large number of angular elements that form the composition reinforces the visual stability of the characters.

The strong contrast between the dark ink and "flying white" portions of the brushwork are also balanced throughout, further heightening the interesting and varied quality of the lines. It thus gives the scroll an overall sense of power and presence.

Wang Yanzhou's Preface to The Garden of Calligraphy (AD 1911) by Wang Chuang-wei (1909-1998)National Palace Museum

Wang Yanzhou's Preface to The Garden of Calligraphy

This work by Wang Chuang-wei features a style of brushwork that derives from the "Covenant of Houma" that had been excavated in the twentieth century. The application of the brush is meticulous and balanced between light and heavy as well as slow and quick.

The lines are also varied and rich, having a rounded and heavy manner that is also light and spirited as well as strong and mature. The structure is both angular and rounded, imbuing the seal script here with a rare atmosphere of animation and liveliness.

Credits: Story

"Flowing with Grace: The Story of Seal-Script Calligraphy" is curated by Yan-chiuan He, Associate Curator of the Department of Calligraphy and Painting at the National Palace Museum (January 1, 2020–March 25, 2020).

© 2020 National Palace Museum

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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