Sealstones and impressions explore the privileged relation between calligraphy and epigraphy. Conscious of the risk to divorce totally from matter, the literati had chosen to miniaturize ancient traces into this little known tradition of stoneworking.

Sigillography pushed them to look for the raw material directly in the few renowned quarries of high quality pyrophillite soft stone, from Balin, Inner Mongolia, to Shoushan, Fujian province. The carving of stone seals lead them to reconstruct the chain that brings a seal from a mountain, to the literati’s studio. It also revealed a precious tool to echo the gestures of ancient epigraphers.

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Miniaturization is associated with mastery, comforting knowledge and the feeling of ‘owning’ the world, as opposed to the gigantic, which offers a feel of awe leading to open perception. Chinese literati such as Zheng Xie (練培; 1693-1765) or Shen Fu (復; 1763-1808) compare seal engraving to the principles of garden design: ‘This space of one square inch naturally comprises hills and dales’ (Van Gulik 1958:422 and Kuo 1992:48).  Echoing Ledderose’s attempt in relating landscape painting to three-dimensional landscape art in material culture (See Ledderose 1983 :165-186), seals can be perceived as a kind of ‘monumental art’ or ‘architecture’, because of the way they associate the raw material’s constraints, to compositional requirements (Billeter 1990:288). 

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A calligrapher engages into the reproduction of past gestures, previously recorded by the craftman into stone. The  ancient calligraphic models are only accessible through rubbings: imprints of stone carvings on inked paper. Antiquarianists and literati traditionally collect these documents, often without a direct contact with the stone. This separation between the art of writing, and its material sources, mainly epigraphy on stone,  has gradually drawn a strict cultural boundary drawn between the carver and the calligrapher, in the Chinese conception of ‘Fine Arts’. By looking at literati art as the cultural strategies of a group to transform matter into sign,  we can understand how crucial it is for the literati to constantly revive the bond between paper and stone.

All artistic disciplines, such as painting in its beginnings, or seal carving, had to overcome its connection with craftwork in order to become a fully recognized activity for the literati class. Most scholars wouldn’t carve their own seals, not willing to engage in this skilled, time-consuming exercise, hard to attribute to an ‘overflow of literary activity’ (Cahill 1964:77-102).  

Photographic credits: Mathieu Bauwens

Photographic credits: Mathieu Bauwens

Ledderose has pointed out the story of Wei Dan as an archetypal case of heavy physical work required from a calligrapher (Ledderose 2013:55). After writing a few monumental characters required for a building’s name tablet at a breathtaking height, in an unconfortable working position, the calligrapher is said to have been traumatized by the task. According to Ledderose, this precedent influenced the later Wang Xianzhi’s refusal to accomplish physical work of such dimensions. In his ‘Writing with Cinnabar’ chapter, Jiang Kui warns the aspiring epigrapher or seal carver by saying that ‘writing this way requires much energy and is very exhausting’ (Jiang Kui, ‘Sequel To The Treatise On Calligraphy (Xu Shu Pu)’, translated By Chang And Frankel 1995 :29). 


Hard material supposes a kind of skill to be associated with craftwork. Seal carving tools belong to the category of metal chisels. The later use of soft stone holds a pivotal role in seal carving’s shift from craft to art: time and effort-consuming casting and jade polishing techniques accessible to a few skilled craftmen are replaced by the free use of the ‘metal brush’ by any trained calligrapher. In his study on the Literati environment, Watt stresses how ‘The necessary condition for the birth of this new art form, or rather the transformation of an ancient craft into a medium of literati expression, was the use of soft stones for seal carving‘ (Watts 1987:11).  Yuan literati Wang Mian (1287-1359) was the first literati to use soft stone to carve his own seals, overcoming the challenge of animating or conveying life to stone. Seal stone is extracted out of renowned quarries : its softness and fine grain, comparable to skin or paper, is able to confere to the carved lines a fluidity comparable to brushwork, or what has been defined as an ‘unconsciously running dancing knife 契랍꼇列,館裂校독’ (Deng Sanmu 1979 :413).  

The ‘increased physicality’ introduced by this practice in the literati’s somatic attitude, allowed a firmer grasp on material, acting as a mental refuge encompassing all senses, including hearing the ‘sound of carving’ (Bai 2003:52). Refering to Shen Fu’s understanding of  brushwork as muscular, kinetic device, Billeter highlights the direct contact with the stone as the ‘best way to reach that primary realm where the act is still only a concentrated, almost static nucleus of energy’ (Billeter 1990:287). The seals reduced size and maniability would make them occupy an unprecendented place in the literati’s set of treasured objects, ‘permitting a more constant and intimate contact between person and object’ (Bai 2003:51) than any other valuable, large and fragile other object. Bodily metaphors in a Chinese context, rather than drawing on anatomy, see physical organs as energetic functions. It is thus not the corporeal volume of the seal, but rather its energetic configuration, direction and effect that embodies the written sign. The ‘relation between inner store and outer manifestation’ (Hay 1983:89),  is here crucial, be it the relation between the stone’s mass and its carved surface, or between the matrix and its printed result.

The synthetic aspects of seals can be traced back to their first apparition. Early seals belonged to the category of jade and bronze, and they were somehow a powerful synthetizing tool, a kind of synesthetic visual expression. The synthetic role of bronze vessels as a power object was later played by the ‘Maps and Documents’ (tu shu 圖書), which further evolved into ‘Calligraphy and Painting’ (shu hua 書畫) (Clunas 1997:81). The three versions of a powerful combinations of image and text share the imperial concern about harmonization and unification and corresponds to the voluntary blurring of calligraphy, charts, maps and figures in Taoist paraphernalia, a fact which clarifies the self-explaining evidence of ‘common origin of painting and writing’. A comparable synesthetic role was played in Western civilization by architecture.