Chinese Funerary Seals

Written by Lu

I received a question from someone asking, “Were seals put into a tomb when its owner died?”

Seals used during the owner’s lifetime were sometimes buried with them while other seals were sometimes made specifically as funerary offerings to be included in a burial. Sun Weizu in his “History and art of Chinese seals” beginning on page 46 says:

“Another function of early seals that should not be neglected is their use as funerary objects, an extension into the afterworld of their function of authenticating an office-holder or an individual. People in the ancient world treated the dead like the living and believed that they would need a form of authentication in the afterlife. Also, in the period before epitaphs and epigraph steles became common, seals were also used as objects to commemorate and identify the deceased. Seals excavated from Qin and Han Dynasty tombs, both those actually used during the deceased’s lifetime and those buried as funerary objects after death, testify to this use. A batch of talc official seals of the Han Dynasty unearthed in Changsha, Hunan Province, proved that funerary seals were generally used in burials in the Han Dynasty. However, after Wei and Jin, this practice gradually died out.”

On page 47 he illustrates one of these funerary seals.

Of interest in the above passage is the use of talc for funerary seals. Talc, also called soapstone—a form of steatite—is, for the most part, too soft to be used for seals. Although it is not very durable it is very easy to carve and so would have been the perfect material to use as an object to be placed in a tomb and intended for use in the afterlife.

For more on talc see: Seal Material.

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