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Learning to read seal script


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I know this has been discussed before, but since it's been quite a while I thought I'd start a new thread.

Are there any decent books in English (or perhaps French) that are meant to teach how to recognize the ancient scripts (small and/or large seal, and possibly bronze and oracle too)? I've found a few so far, but none of them are quite what I'm looking for. Wieger's Chinese Characters is outdated and uses the small seal forms as a means for learning the modern traditional characters. Wang Hongyuan's 漢字字源入門 The Origins of Chinese Characters is confusing, poorly laid out, and not very comprehensive.

I'm not looking for something that will teach how to interpret ancient documents, just how to recognize the characters. Something along the lines of How to Read Egyptian Hieroglyphs: A Step-by-Step Guide to Teach Yourself by Collier and Manley. Not necessarily intended for the specialist, but a good resource for interested hobbyists/laymen/beginners. Of course, if there is a book out there aimed at an academic audience, I'd love to know about it too.

I'm doing a paper on the subject, and if there is no work that fills this description, I'd like the paper to address the need for such a book. I know there are several books in Chinese on the subject, but perhaps the book would fill a void for those (like me) whose Chinese isn't quite up to the task of tackling those tomes, but who are still interested in learning to read seal script. Or those who would like to try their hand at translating inscriptions they see on pieces in museums. There are, after all, a number (albeit small) of people interested in the subject, so I'm sure the book would be a welcome addition to a few libraries.

Any help is much appreciated!

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No, I know of plenty of places to find images of ancient characters. Websites, books, etc. What I'm looking for is a book that teaches how to recognize the characters, how to decipher which is which.

Thank you though. That site will come in handy for me in another project I'm working on!

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Well, I mentioned it because myself, I've found the best way to learn seal script is to just take some seals and start puzzling down the characters, using all the tools available. That site is especially good because they've "translated" all those seals; there are hundreds on that site. Of course, it helps if you've got a good general grasp of Chinese characters first.

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  • New Members

I believe there is not a straight forward way to tell which is which, because all the seals were scripted in different dynasties spanning over maybe more than 1000 years. The seals themselves can be very different even for a single charactor (you can tell that if you look up a dictionary). The best way is to accumulate your experience by reading and recognizing many seals.

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Well, ideally yes, were I to publish the paper, someone qualified would read the paper, hopefully say "Yes, there seems to be some market for this," and begin to write a book. Otherwise, maybe I'll write it a few years from now when I'm qualified, since it's related to what I plan to study in grad school. However, it isn't very likely to get published, since I have no academic qualifications in the field.

But it serves a more practical purpose for now. I need a writing sample for my grad school applications. I haven't written any papers related to Chinese studies, and it's a topic I'm interested in and know enough about to get started on. That's the main purpose of "such a paper." :P

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I should have mentioned that it isn't for me personally to learn to read seal script. Your approach is also how I've approached it so far. I'm also making an Anki deck for learning Seal Script, which should be ready within a week or two. I'll post about it here if there's any interest.

The point of me finding as many books like this as possible is so that in my paper I can review the existing materials and their shortcomings in order to show how a new book could improve on them. Sort of like, "there's this gap in the literature, here's why it's important, and here's how I think it could be fixed."

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. I need a writing sample for my grad school applications. I haven't written any papers related to Chinese studies, and it's a topic I'm interested in and know enough about to get started on. That's the main purpose of "such a paper." :P

Grad schools would want to see you write about something that you know something about. They won't be impressed by a proposal for someone else to write a book. Based on the three years or so of your postings here, it seems that your approach to academia is really scattered. If you really want to specialize in Chinese as a career, you should dedicate yourself to learning modern Mandarin Chinese first, and only after you have achieved some level of fluency in it, should you move on to side subjects like seal scripts or linguistics. If you don't have the time or what not to learn modern Chinese, then you really should ask yourself whether it is realistic to learn all these other stuff.

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I'd be interested in such a book. It would be fun to become slightly familiar with them, plus we need someone here that can answer all the questions about "can someone translate the seal on this scroll I bought in China", 'cause I sure can't :P

As to why such a book instead of just looking at examples? I think the answer is obvious: because it can save a lot of time. I'm sure that any reasonably intelligent person (and from my posts you may question whether I qualify, that's fine) could figure it out for themself via looking at examples. But having a well designed textbook, which explains what to look for and presents the characters in a way that builds up and reinforces prior learning, can make the learning a lot more efficient. It's the reason people learn languages from a textbook, and we don't just hand them a dictionary and a grammar book and tell them to go learn on their own.

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You're right, I have been pretty scattered in my approach to learning Chinese. But I think I've gotten a lot more focused since I decided to go to grad school.

I'm moving to China this fall with my wife, who is putting her career on hold, so I can study the language there for a year. You can't say I'm not willing to put in the effort to learn modern Chinese. I've been in contact with professors and graduate advisors about how best to improve my chances of admission (and they've advised me not to send in a writing sample that's unrelated to the field). I've been filling in gaps in my background by reading from undergrad course syllabi in Chinese history, and grad course syllabi in Chinese linguistics. I'm trying to get a knowledge of what's being done in different areas of the field I'm interested in so that I can narrow down what I want to specialize in. Of course my interests may change over the course of my time in grad school, but I do need to have some idea before I apply so I can write a clear, focused statement of purpose.

Writing systems have always been an interest of mine, since before I started learning Chinese, and the Chinese writing system is one of the things that drew me to the language in the first place. I've read a good deal about it, and I think I'm qualified to write a paper on it. I certainly know as much or more about it as your average undergrad Chinese major, who will be my competition for admission to MA programs. And by the time I finish reading for this paper, I'll know a good deal more about it. Whether the paper includes a proposal for a new book or not, I don't know. It depends on if I actually find a need for such a book in my reading. But if it does include such a proposal, it will be a small part of the paper.

I think I'm the best one to decide what I should or should not study on my own time and given my own interests. I think I'll be better off in grad school with passable Chinese and a decent general knowledge of the field rather than great Chinese and no clue what's going on in the field. Most MA programs only require second-year level Chinese skills to be accepted and third-year skills to graduate anyway, and I will have a good deal more than that by that point.

Thanks for your concern. It got me thinking.


Thanks. I have two copies of 說文解字. It isn't what I'm asking for though. I'm looking for a textbook in English intended to teach how to recognize seal script.


My thoughts exactly.

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  • 9 years later...

Funny trip down memory lane. 😁


That was so long ago, I can't remember whether I finished the deck or not, and I'm sure I don't have it anymore if I did.


I ended up moving to Taiwan, going to language school there, auditing 古文字學 classes, and then enrolled in an MA program in linguistics and paleography in the Chinese department. Along the way, of course, I learned to read seal script. Funny enough, the method my teacher used to teach us was "Go through the 說文 and copy every character in both modern and small seal script." That got me literate in 小篆 very quickly. Altogether I had to do that assignment for 3 different courses, though thankfully two of them only required us to copy part of the 說文, not the whole thing.

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  • 5 months later...

Hi OneEye,

I see this topic is from a long time ago... Reading about where life has taken you is very interesting and inspiring! I am in my second year of Chinese at university now (in The Netherlands).

At the moment I am trying to decipher the name of an artist, which is written in seal script. (I don't know how to insert an image here.) A friend of mine has asked me to do so for her and it is of great importance to her to find out. However, I am completely stuck and have not yet found a website that could help me. Therefore, I was wondering, if by any chance you know if in the meantime -after your paper on the subject- a book has been written on how to read seal script? Or if you have any additional tips? I would love to hear.


Thank you in advance!

Best wishes,


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As far as I know, there's no book on the subject in English. I have a few in Chinese, although I don't have access to them at the moment to look up their titles. The method I used to learn ("go through the 說文 and copy every head character in 小篆 and 楷書") worked reasonably well, although for most people it's probably enough to just learn the 540 radicals.


If you just need help with this one seal and aren't looking to learn seal script in general, I'd be happy to help out once you're able to post a photo.

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Thank you both for your replies! I am thrilled and wasn't expecting any to be honest! :)

And thank you OneEye for offering help with this one. That is so kind and would be amazing! I just found out how to post a photo:)

Maybe in the future I might make an attempt to learn seal script in general:)

seal script : zegelschrift.JPG

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