Object: Soapstone Seal

Chinese Soapstone Seal
Unknown Date
Materials: Soapstone (Steatite), silk-based ink residue

A Chinese seal is a stamp containing Chinese characters used in East Asia on official documents, contracts, art and other texts where authorship is considered important. Seals were used instead of signatures because they were hard to forge and only the owner has access to their own seal. This type of seal is generally composed of steatite, commonly known as soapstone, or jade. The stamp may be carved into a raised relief known as Zhuwen creating imprints of red characters. Another option is to carve characters into a bas relief called Baiwen that stamps the background in red, creating white characters. Sometimes these two techniques are combined in a Zhubaiwen Xiangjianyin stamp.

The earliest documented use of seals in China dates to the Zhan-guo period (403-221 B.C.E.); though some speculate seals may have been used as early as 1050 B.C.E. The name, design, regulation, characters and purpose of seals changed through various dynasties.

Steatite and jade are the most common materials used for the production of seals. Steatite was preferred in some instances over jade because of its properties. Steatite is a form of mineral talc that is very soft and easy to carve. Over time, or through firing, steatite hardens, thus it becomes more durable with time and use. Cinnabar, castor oil and moxa punk are mixed with either a silk or plant base to produce ink. The result is a bright red tint in a thick paste for silk or a loose powder for plant bases.

This seal is decorated with the two Fu Dog motif. Other popular motifs include floral scenes, fish, frogs, dragons, lions, and birds, though the Fu Dog is the most popular. The Fu Dogs, or Rui Shi in Chinese (auspicious lions), are the beloved pets of Buddha and powerful mystic protectors. They are frequently presented in pairs, a male and female, and are symbolic of many of life’s dichotomies. They represent yin and yang, life and death, domesticity and bureaucracy, and fung shui and dharma. [Katie Pierce]

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Ethnology @ SNOMNH is an experimental weblog for sharing the collections of the Division of Ethnology at the Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History.


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