If you come from a Chinese family or ancestry, you may have heard about these small interesting curiosities known as seal sculptures. These days they are often seen in Chinese traditional households or on display at tourist shops, but the history behind the seal sculpture is one that links to the very essence of Chinese culture.

A basic seal sculpture consists of a minimalist carving or decorative adornment on the top of the seal. Traditionally vertical in orientation, these small scaled sculptures are most common in East Asian regions. Also known as Niu Ke or Tou Ke, seal sculptures have been around since the time of the ancient Chinese dynasties. The Zhou Dynasty made use of bronze seal sculptures as tools for government officials to convey their approval for legal issues. They used heavy metal materials like bronze because of the long lasting durability involved. The Chinese believed that this symbolized a type of permanent power or endlessness, and was a good material to make use of. Later on during the Ming and Yuan dynasties, the seal sculpture made its way into public culture, being used by scholars and other professionals.

One of the more common Chinese designs for a seal sculpture is the form of a dragon. A carving etched into marble, jade or natural stone is usually the most frequent type nowadays. Despite its minimalistic simplicity, seal sculptures require a great deal of skill to create. Carving a miniscule block of thin stone requires dexterity and the ability to work with small crevices. Attention to detail has always been one of the major characteristics of any seal artist. Some seals are also engraved on their sides with Chinese characters. The bottom of the seal sculpture always holds a character referring to its patron or owner. Family or full names are the most common type of wordings seen under the bases of seal sculptures today.

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