Seal script
Script type
Time period
c. 700 BC – c. 200 AD
DirectionTop-to-bottom Edit this on Wikidata
LanguagesOld Chinese
Related scripts
Parent systems
Child systems
 This article contains phonetic transcriptions in the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). For an introductory guide on IPA symbols, see Help:IPA. For the distinction between [ ], / / and ⟨ ⟩, see IPA § Brackets and transcription delimiters.
Seal script
"Seal script" in regular script (left) and seal script (right).
Chinese name
Traditional Chinese篆書
Simplified Chinese篆书
Vietnamese name
Vietnamese alphabet
  • triện thư
  • chữ triện
  • 篆書
  • 𡨸篆
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Seal script or sigillary script is a style of writing Chinese characters that was common throughout the latter half of the 1st millennium BC. It evolved organically out of bronze script during the Zhou dynasty (1046–256 BC). The variant of seal script used in the state of Qin eventually became comparatively standardized, and was adopted as the formal script across all of China during the Qin dynasty (221–206 BC). It was still widely used for decorative engraving and seals during the Han dynasty (202 BC – 220 AD).[1][2][3]

The literal translation of "seal script" (篆書 zhuànshū) is 'decorative engraving script'—this name was coined during the Han dynasty,[citation needed] and reflects the role of the script being reduced to ceremonial inscriptions.


The term seal script may refer to several distinct varieties, including the large seal script and the small seal script. Without qualification, seal script usually refers to the small seal script—that is, the lineage which evolved within the state of Qin during the Eastern Zhou dynasty (771–221 BC), which was later standardized under Qin Shi Huang (r. 221–210 BC). The term large seal script may itself refer to a broad range of forms, including Qin forms older than the small seal script—but also earlier Western Zhou forms, or even oracle bone characters. Due to this imprecision, modern scholars tend to avoid using the term large seal script.[4]


There were several different variants of seal script which developed independently in each kingdom during the Eastern Zhou. One of these, the bird-worm seal script, is named for its intricate decorations on the defining strokes, and was used in the states of Wu, Chu, and Yue. It was found on several artifacts including the Spear of Fuchai and the Sword of Goujian. As a southern state, Chu was influenced by Wuyue. Chu produced bronze broadswords that were similar to those from Wuyue, but not as intricate. Chu also used the bird-worm style, which was borrowed by the Wu and Yue states.[citation needed]

Unified small seal script

Main article: Small seal script

The Qin script—as exemplified in bronze inscriptions prior to unification—had evolved organically from the Zhou script starting in the Spring and Autumn period. Beginning around the Warring States period, it became vertically elongated with a regular appearance. This was the period of maturation for the small seal script. It was systematized by prime minister Li Si during the reign of Qin Shi Huang through the elimination of most character variants, and was imposed as the imperial standard.[5] Through Chinese commentaries, it is known that Li Si compiled the Cangjiepian, a partially-extant wordbook listing some 3,300 Chinese characters in the small seal script. Their form is characterized by being less rectangular and more squarish.

In the popular history of Chinese characters, the small seal script is traditionally considered to be ancestral to clerical script, which in turn prefigured every other script in use today. However, recent archaeological discoveries and scholarship have led some scholars to conclude that the direct ancestor of clerical script was proto-clerical script, which in turn evolved out of the lesser-known vulgar or popular writing of the late Warring States to Qin period.[6]

The first known character dictionary was the 3rd-century BC Erya, collated and referenced by Liu Xiang and his son Liu Xin; it is no longer extant. Not long after, the Shuowen Jiezi (c. 100 AD) was written by Xu Shen. The Shuowen's 9,353 entries reproduce the standardized small seal forms for each entry, organized under 540 radicals.

Computer encoding

Seal inscription on the tomb of Li Jingxun (608 AD)

It is anticipated that small seal script forms will eventually be encoded in The Unicode Standard. The code points U+38000–U+3AB9F on the Tertiary Ideographic Plane have been tentatively allocated.[7]

See also



  1. ^ Li Huiwen (李惠文); Han Lifen (韩丽芬); George Becker (贝可平) (2018-12-20). "Calligraphy And Writing Techniques in the Qin and Han Dynasties".
  2. ^ "Script Types". Retrieved 2023-09-28.
  3. ^ "Categories of Calligraphy - Seal Script". Retrieved 2023-09-29.
  4. ^ Qiu 2000, p. 60.
  5. ^ Chen 2003.
  6. ^ Qiu 2000.
  7. ^ Everson, Michael; McGowan, Rick; Whistler, Ken; Umamaheswaran, V. S. (9 May 2023). "Roadmap to the TIP". The Unicode Consortium. Retrieved 28 August 2023.

Works cited

  • Qiu Xigui (裘锡圭) (2000) [1988]. Chinese Writing. Translated by Mattos, Gilbert L.; Norman, Jerry. Berkeley: Society for the Study of Early China and The Institute of East Asian Studies, University of California. ISBN 978-1-557-29071-7.
  • Chen Zhaorong (陳昭容) (2003). 秦系文字研究﹕从漢字史的角度考察 [Research on the Qin Lineage of Writing: An Examination from the Perspective of the History of Chinese Writing] (in Chinese). Academia Sinica. ISBN 957-671-995-X.