Where Does It Start?

Written by Lu

Four character seal

Chinese is traditionally written from top to bottom in columns that are read from right to left, in other words beginning in the top right corner and continuing to the bottom left corner. Because this was the normal way of writing this is also the format of most early Chinese seals. The majority of official seals from the Han dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) consist of four characters in this arrangement. But the characters found on a seal can go in any direction; clockwise or counter-clockwise starting in any corner, or up and down from right to left or left to right. Occasionally a seal will be found with characters that span opposite corners. For the seal artist what matters is an artistic arrangement of the characters. For this reason it can be very hard to know in which direction to read a seal. One clue, at least for name seals, is the use of the character for “seal” (印 yin). Most Chinese names consist of three characters: a single-character family name followed by a two-character personal name. In order to evenly fill the four corners of a square seal the character 印 yin is added at the end of the name with the meaning of “seal of so-and-so.” Whenever you see this character, in any of it’s many stylized versions, on a four-character seal you can be fairly certain that it is the last character and, no matter in which corner you find it, the name will usually begin in the opposite corner.

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