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I noticed that in various works of Japanese art, the artists sign their work with a seal whose contents range from fairly regular kanji to very abstract variations of kanji. I have also seen it used in calligraphy, as shown in the example below.

I heard that this is called "seal script", but no one has been able to point me to any more information on it beyond Wikipedia. Is there a name for this form of writing and better resources for learning about it?

Photograph of a piece of Japanese artwork with calligraphy in an unknown script.

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2 Answers 2

up vote 7 down vote accepted

The kanji script that you see in the first (rightmost) line of your picture, as well as in the seal at the bottom left is called 篆書体【てんしょたい】.

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I don't know what that means, but the romanization for the word I provided is "tenshotai". I just checked and saw that in English, it is called "seal script" or "small seal script". – user458 Mar 5 '12 at 15:18
zhuànshū is the romanization of the Chinese word spelled the same, tenshotai is the romanization of the Japanese (on-)reading. – user458 Mar 5 '12 at 15:26
篆書体 read as てんしょたい is perfectly accepted as a Japanese word. – user458 Mar 5 '12 at 15:34
I guess in most of the cases, they have a counterpart within the characters used today. They are just different font styles. – user458 Mar 5 '12 at 16:30
Yes, they actually are kanji, just in a different "font." You can see a lot of the difference as homeomorphism, if that helps... to change the metaphor a bit, they preserve the essence of the "graph" (edges and nodes) but alter its visual expression. For example, the 木 radical at the top there looks more like *. (Also note that often older forms are used, thus 艸 instead of 艹.) – Matt Mar 5 '12 at 23:24

It is 篆書 (Mandarin //tʂʷan ʂu//), and more precisely it is 小篆 (Mandarin //ɕʲɑu tʂʷan//).

  • 篆 means write, seal
  • 書 means write/writing, books etc.
  • 小 means tiny, small.

There exists another kind of 篆書 is called 大篆 (大 "big, huge"). The Chinese written in the top-right corner are 枝頭覓春.

  • 枝 branch, twig
  • 頭 head, top
  • 覓 find, search, seek, get
  • 春 spring (the season)

Today 篆書 is no longer used in daily hand writing but in artworks only, for example calligraphy pieces or paintings. But about two thousands years ago, it was used in formal writing and government documents but not just artworks. (It was formalized by the first great empire of China.)

(Ha, I am a native Chinese speaker and I don't know much about Japanese language. I hope my answer can help you. Just tell me if I can bring you more infos.)

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