Seal-cutting is a unique part of Chinese cultural heritage. It is traditionally listed along with painting, calligraphy and poetry as one of the "four arts" which an accomplished scholar is supposed to master. The art dates back about 3, 700 years to the Yin Dynasty and originated from the cutting of oracle inscriptions on tortoise shells. 11 flourished in the Qin Dynasty, when people engraved their names on utensils and documents (of bamboo and wood) to show ownership or authorship. Out of this grew the cutting of personal names on small blocks of horn, jade or wood, namely the seals as we know them today.
As in other countries, seals may be used by official departments as well as private individuals. From as early as the Warring States Period (45-221 BC) an official seal would be conferred as token of authorization by the head of state on a subject whom he appointed to a high office. The seal, in other words, stood for the office and the corresponding power. Private seals are likewise used to stamp personal name son various papers for purposes authentication or as tokens of good faith.
Characters on seals may be cut in relief or intaglio. The materials for seals can be wood, stone, horn, red-stained Changhua stone, jade, agate, crystal, ivory or even gold.
Seals cut as works of art should be remarkable in three aspects-calligraphy, composition and the graver's handwork. The artist should be good at writing various styles of Chinese script. He should know how to arrange within a small space a number of characters-some with many strokes and others with very few-to achieve a graceful effect. He should also be familiar with the various materials stone, brass or ivory-so that he may apply the cutting knife with the right exertion, technique and even rhythm.