When you look at a painting or piece of calligraphy made in China you of course find the red seal markings on them, it may be only one or even a dozen. But little is truly known about the Chinese seals to the common art historian or collector. In an art history course one might be told that these seals are signatures of the artist or of the private collectors that the piece fell into the hands of, just like signatures on paintings made by artists everywhere else in the world. This notion is strictly speaking not completely true. Seals are often (but not always) a signature; in the sense that they are distinctive patterns that are unique and traceable to a single person. But they are not signatures in the sense that they are precisely the written name of an individual.
In the Ming and Qing dynasties, it was common to have seals using the names of art studios, literary quotations, or courtesy names. The seals on paintings also had more functions than signatures have. Throughout Chinese history seals truly affected the painting in both value, and virtue. Generally the more seals imprints that a piece of art had on it, the greater the value of it was, let alone if it had the stamp from an emperor or famous artist. The seals also had philosophical and lofty comments or statements that would make the piece of art appear more virtuous. Furthermore, seals were put on paintings (in addition to calligraphy) to adjust the layout and add character. Back in Ancient China, seals were more often basic in carving and had more often the function of how a signature is used today, such as on contracts, letters, books etc. But even then, there were those who used them to add auspiciousness, philosophy, or commentary. In the Warring States period there were seals on documents saying things like “Great Fortune,” and “Prosperity from Generation to Generation”.
What is very disregarded and unacknowledged is seal making as an art form including both the carving of the seal block, and the design and esthetic of the actual seal mark. Seal making as an art form did not finally distinguish and separate itself from ordinary authentication seal making until the later part of the Ming dynasty. It began as a literati art that moved to schools specifically to teach seal engraving.
Just as in Chinese philosophy of the time, anything of antiquity was considered to be the purist and most perfect form. So the techniques of pre-artistic form seal engraving was to be as authentic to the style of seals made in antiquity, both in script style and carving style. Of course, this generally limited creativity, so the techniques and guidelines were redefined for ancient seals during the Ming and Qing to be more conceptual and lofty while still maintaining belief of the superiority of the ancient seals. These concepts were, as historian Sun Weizu says: “uniqueness; elegance; masculine solemnity; restrained harmony; graceful purity, and composed modesty.” Concepts like these have been changed or added as we move closer in history to today.
Chinese seal making as a device for authentication is essentially extinct at this point in history, but as an art form it has flourished. It managed to survive the Cultural Revolution and the Mao era to become an even freer and very exciting art form. As art in general becomes freer and open in China, seal art only gets more popular and extravagant, further making this type of art something to look for, look at and to be aware of.