Is It Soapstone?

“What stone is it?” is one of the most often asked questions about Chinese seals. Almost everything you read in English says they’re made from soapstone. But this is true only if soapstone is being used (incorrectly) as a generic term for any soft stone. True soapstone is too soft for a permanent seal but, according to Sun Weizu in The History and Art of Chinese Seals, it was occasionally used for seals as funerary items which were not intended to be used (at least in this lifetime). Instead the Chinese prefer a stone called pyrophyllite which is a bit harder than soapstone. Unfortunately the use of soapstone to describe seals has somehow found its way into the English literature and is probably now too well-established to stamp out.

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