The unsolved puzzle of an ancient Chinese seal - SOAS China Institute

//The unsolved puzzle of an ancient Chinese seal

The unsolved puzzle of an ancient Chinese seal

By Shane McCausland | 11 July 2023

Puzzling about the legend of an old Chinese jade seal in Bristol City Museum, from the collection of the German-British businessman and banker Ferdinand Nassau Schiller (1866-1938), and having got nowhere by asking those in my immediate network who knew Asian languages, I recently asked Craig Clunas, emeritus professor of art history at Oxford, to tweet out the details (since deleted but see here for a thread). With 10k followers in the Twittersphere, Prof. Clunas was quite sanguine about the chances of solving the puzzle, given his followers’ eclectic interests, talents and skills across Asiatic languages.


The seal is patently old and apparently Chinese (i.e., culturally from the Sinosphere), finely carved, and of good quality jade, while remnants of red seal paste on the ‘business’ face speak to its having been used on documents or, more likely given its august form, on scroll paintings as a collector-connoisseur’s seal. So far, so normal.  As to the legend, it has long been a mystery, and validatory of that Chinese term for ornery seals of this kind, huaya (花押, flower impressions). It has so far been unrecognisable as any kind of East Asian script or any Inner Asian, Sanskrit, Tibetan or even Arabic script. Any of these might have been possible if the object dated to the Sino-Mongol Yuan dynasty (in sensu lato, 1206-1368), which was the working assumption (based on Bristol’s notes on file) and the reason for looking at it in the first place. Without going into too much detail about seals, obviously the orientation matters (knowing which way is up – and the ‘Schiller’ label on the object had made a call in that regard) as does the carving in either relievo or intaglio, that is, whether the seal paste applied to the jade surface is intended to mark either positive or negative space in the visual design of the text legend.

Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives (Note: the photo is upside down to show the seal legend in its correct orientation.)

To step back for a moment, we know for instance of a huaya seal impression reading ‘Ali’, thought to belong to a semu (Central Asian) Uyghur collector of the Yuan period of that name, which appears for example on the famous Admonitions of the Court Instructress scroll in the British Museum. The Ali seal is carved in the official Mongol script used to transliterate Mongolian, Chinese and other languages of the Great Yuan (to give this khanate/dynasty its proper name), one named after its inventor, the Tibetan lama and Imperial Preceptor, Phagspa (1235-1280). The same scroll also bears a still undeciphered huaya seal impression which resembles the Chinese character yong (). From this huaya’s placement as a bridging seal on a brocade border-panel, where it is sandwiched between the Jurchen Jin (1115-1234) emperor Zhangzong (金章宗)’s seal, ‘Qunyuzhong mi’ (群玉中秘) (i.e., treasure among myriad jades), above, and the ‘Chang’ () seal of the Southern Song traitor Jia Sidao (賈似道) (1213-1275), below, it appears to date to the Yuan dynasty. So, there is a case to be made in the world of art connoisseurship for associating huaya with periods of non-Chinese rule in China.


Prof. Clunas’ tweet quickly generated shy of 100,000 replies/re-tweets/impressions. Two broad camps had emerged and dug in. One side (see here) generally backed the idea that it was a Song imperial seal, noting the existence of a very similar seal with a ‘dragon’ knob in the Shanghai Museum, where it is identified as an imperial cypher of the Northern Song period (960-1127). A published caption to the seal (see the thread) asserted that the Northern Song royal household pioneered the use of these huaya seals for certification purposes, but the legend is still a mystery. At least one historical impression of the seal (or rather, another version of the same seal) then appeared in the Twitter to-and-fro, albeit a specimen at some stages of remove from an original impression, being on a c. 1900 CE ink rubbing of a God of Longevity hanging scroll in Princeton attributed to the Northern Song polymath Su Shi. A modern ink rubbing of a painting like this is an unusual kind of art object and not typically a clincher of an argument for connoisseurs. Our huaya is described by Princeton as an unknown cipher and it is listed after notice of an early Southern Song imperial seal impression, which appears to predate it. It is puzzling how a Northern Song imperial seal (if that is what it is) with an unexplained legend found its way onto a painting by Su Shi (who along with his following was officially banned in the late Northern Song) in a position just below an early Southern Song imperial seal.

Photo credit: Bristol Museums, Galleries and Archives

Another side (see here) read the legend as the Uyghurised Mongolian for ᠴᠢᠨ ᠪᠣčin (i.e., Chinese zhen ‘true’) and bo (i.e., Chinese bao ‘treasure’ or ‘precious seal’) — or even zhenbao (珍寳 precious treasure), which would be an appropriate seal legend for a high-status collector’s seal (though it is strange it does not appear on any well-known extant paintings). If this is right, it dates the seal to after Chinggis (r. 1206-27) developed Uyghur script to transcribe Mongolian and before his grandson Qubilai, or Kublai Khan, (r. 1260-94) had Phagspa script devised for the same purpose in 1269.


It is an arcane kind of a problem, but is it solved? The Twitterati certainly engaged with it in fulsome voice. They have probably solved it, albeit there are some loose ends to tie up. And now they have moved on.


If it is a Song Chinese imperial huaya seal, what does the legend signify, if anything? This has not been addressed. But the reading of the legend as Uygurised Mongolian, sounding the Chinese zhenbao, is plausible. If we have here a seal of a member of the Mongol or semu elite from between 1206 and 1269, who was this and what did he or she use it for? It was common enough for some Mongol imperial collector seal impressions to be defaced or removed by Chinese connoisseurs after the Yuan, as in picture-scrolls owned and stamped by renowned collector and patron of Chinese arts, Princess Sengge Ragi (c. 1283-1331), who was Qubilai ’s great granddaughter. In the early Ming, art objects that were rebranded as non-Mongol tended to suffer less attrition. If I had to guess, I would say we have a case of something like that going on here.

Professor Shane McCausland is Percival David Professor of the History of Art at SOAS. He is an historian and curator of visual arts and material culture with interests ranging across the arts produced in China over the last two millennia as well as arts of Mongol-ruled Eurasia in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. His work regularly addresses the interpretation of aesthetic forms, traces, media and materials, and how these are contextualized in terms of visual and disciplinary debates.

The views expressed on this blog are those of the author(s) and are not necessarily those of the SOAS China Institute.