Theses Doctoral

The Chinese Seal in the Making, 1904-1937

Lawrence, Elizabeth Han Clow

Seals are hand-held printing blocks inscribed with some pattern, generally text. They were objects of immense power and prestige in imperial China. This dissertation examines the modern afterlife of inscribed seals against the backdrop of the decline and collapse of an imperial era order of knowledge and social status, the rise of modern consumer markets and mass culture, and the local accommodation of modern disciplines that promoted new ways of classifying and engaging the material world.
In late imperial China (ca. 1600s-1800s), seals legitimized the rule of the emperor and his civil servants and marked the taste and erudition of the literati elite. As hand-held printing blocks that replicated in ink small textual signs, they produced authorizing marks of personhood and office and attracted elite collectors as calligraphic compositions of antiquarian interest. In modern China, seals proliferated within the cosmopolitan material culture of cities like Hangzhou and Shanghai. As the seal was transformed following the disintegration the imperial system, its multifaceted meanings and functions were increasingly subsumed under a monolithic category of "Chinese seal" as art object. The making of the "Chinese seal" as a representative fine art and marker of a distinctive Chinese culture evolved out of the diverse ways in which the carvers, consumers, scholars, and users of seals defined the object's significance in a modern world. This dissertation is thus structured around the new social venues in which the seal emerged in the first four decades of the twentieth century, from the final years of imperial rule through the period of the Nanjing Decade (1927-1937).
The seal in premodern China was not an unchanging part of a traditional material culture. Its uses and significance had already undergone dramatic, historically contingent, transformations before the twentieth century. Chapter one broadly examines the multifaceted functions of the seal through Chinese history, and explains the emergence of the seal as an object of literati fascination in the late imperial period.
The relationship between seal carving and the literati way of life would have to be at least partially displaced for seal carving to survive China's transition to a more mass-oriented society. Chapter two demonstrates how members of the Xiling Seal Society (founded 1904), the first-ever specialized institution devoted to seal carving and inscriptions celebrated literati values of amateurism and exclusivity while simultaneously contributing to the commodification, public visibility, and transformation of literati seal carving. The Xiling Seal Society, as a modern heritage institution based in Hangzhou, had a commercial counterpart in Shanghai with a national and international consumer base. Chapter three uses catalogues of this business and its offshoots as evidence of the crucial role of the market in transmitting and modifying seal carving and related aspects of elite material culture after the collapse of the imperial order. While the Shanghai Xiling Seal Society positioned itself against a vulgarization of seal carving in contemporary society, it incrementally detached the seal from a broader framework of imperial era knowledge production and ultimately marketed it as a customizable commodity suitable to the needs of the modern consumer.
Chapters 4 and 5 examine the emerging categorization of the seal as a fine art object. Through an examination of how-to manuals published during the Republican period, chapter 4 focuses on the ways in which practitioners characterized their expertise and how their practical instruction aimed at a general reader marked a transformation of the concept of amateurism. Chapter 5 looks at the seal's incorporation into state-sponsored national exhibitions of fine art held in 1929 and 1937 and the tensions produced by the collision of connoisseurship culture with the mass pedagogy of "aesthetic education." The categorization of seal carving as fine art can be understood as the grafting of an exogenous classification system onto a local practice. But this new categorization did not only transform the seal, it also transformed the very category of "fine arts" as it was understood in China.
The final chapter examines the seal as an object of scholarly inquiry and the relationship between seals, seal carving, and an indigenous field of metal and stone inscription study (jinshi). The second director of the Xiling Seal Society, a scholar named Ma Heng, incorporated seals into his vision of metal and stone inscription study as a sub-discipline of modern historical scholarship. Ma Heng judged seal carving not by the aesthetics of the seal composition, but by the integrity of the archaic text as an accurately rendered play upon epigraphic models. His insistence that seal carving be understood as an expression of scholarship serves as a reminder of how awkwardly imperial era practices of connoisseurship and knowledge production mapped onto a modern field of disciplines, with their hardened boundaries between the arts and the sciences.
Today, the Chinese government promotes seal carving as a representative part of an ancient and enduring Chinese culture. As examined in the dissertation's epilogue, the People's Republic of China has succeeded in having "the art of Chinese seal engraving" inscribed on the UNESCO list of intangible cultural heritage of humanity. The seal has now come into the purview of the contemporary state's heritage politics. This has only been possible because the seal proved useful, significant, and accessible to people in the early twentieth century even after the imperial system that had accounted for the object's former prestige was torn asunder.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
East Asian Languages and Cultures
Thesis Advisors
Lean, Eugenia
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 1, 2014