Preface to a Collection of Seal Carvings by Wu Zijian

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Artist: Xie Zhiliu 謝稚柳 (1910-1997)
Historical period(s)
Modern period, 1971
Ink on paper
H x W (image): 38 x 108.3 cm (14 15/16 x 42 5/8 in)
Credit Line
Gift of Wu Zi Jian and Wu Chi Wing
Freer Gallery of Art Collection
Accession Number
On View Location
Currently not on view


China, Modern period (1912 - present), running script
Provenance research underway.

Preface to a Collection of Seal Carvings by Wu Zijian
by Xie Zhiliu (1910--1997)

"A native of Rongcheng [in Fujian Province], Wu Qi, known as Zijian, has a deep passion for seal carving. Going back to the Three Ages, Qin, and Han dynasties, and down through the Ming and Qing into recent times, there is no form of writing on metal and stone, on either official or private seals, that he has not gathered and collected from far and wide and subjected to rigorous analysis. He once made more than twenty seals in a single night, for though he is only twenty-five years old, he has been unstinting in his efforts for some fifteen years.

When carving a seal, Zijian does not first write the text on the surface of the stone, but sets directly to carving it with his knife. It is not just simple characters that he creates like this, but complex ones also, and it is not just intaglio texts, but those in relief, and even the convoluted and intricate "bird script" and seal script, that he does like this as well. His hand freely executes whatever his mind has conceived, unconsciously "plying his blade with more than enough room to spare." I have searched through all the earlier masters and no one before has ever done anything like this, so an ability such as his must truly be hard to achieve.

Zijian once said: Carving a seal is like writing calligraphy, for just as brushwork is what makes a written form beautiful, knifework is what makes the carved design beautiful. Writing calligraphy is not the same as carving a seal, but since identical strokes are used for both, what is valued in knifework in regard to writing is just the same as for brushwork. These words penetrate the essence of what earlier commentators have said about [knifework techniques such as] slicing [chongdao] and incising [qiedao].
On occasion I have examined Zijian's works, and there is a sense of monumentality in their design and a feeling of grandeur. His thick lines are like pliant branches or the crisscross trunks of trees, while his thin lines are like metal wires or threads of silk, sometimes moving like a dashing stream and driving rain, or quiet as condensing clouds and gentle ripples. If his carving seems clumsy on the outside, on the inside it is subtle and graceful, and what may seem flaccid in external appearance, in its inner substance is pure and vigorous. Although he shifts and changes among many styles, what is important to Zijian is that the thick lines never collapse into the grotesque or primitive and that the thin lines always create a distinct and solid design. His style is fresh and marvelous, and stands uniquely unto itself.

"Shen Ye of the Ming dynasty once stated that just as there is poetry in painting, there is also poetry in seals. He could very well have been speaking about Zijian's works, for is there indeed not poetry in his seals? Hitherto, discussions of seal carving have always praised the seals of the Han dynasty. But although Zijian is still quite young, his achievement in fact is already such that, given a little more time, no one will even think of the Han anymore." Written by Yuyin [Xie Zhiliu]

Translation by Stephen D. Allee

Published References
  • Wu Zijian Yinji. Shanghai. cover, pp. 1-5.
  • Zheng Chong. Cong Jiyuan dao Zhuangmutang: Xie Zhiliu yishu shengyai. Shanghai. .
  • Yuan Yu. Xie Zhiliu zhuan. Dang dai shu fa jia zhuan ji wen xue cong shu Beijing. cover art, pls. 7-8.
  • The Hong Kong Institute for Promotion of Chinese Culture. Shu yu ke: Wu Zigian. Exh. cat. Hong Kong. .
  • Han Tianheng. Xuezhe Xie Zhiliu de shufa yishu. no. 4. pp. 21-23.
  • , no. 44, September 1993. pp. 37-51.
  • Thomas Lawton. Xie Zhiliu, May 9, 1910-June 6, 1997. vol. 1, nos. 3-4 Washington and Zurich. pp. 159-60.
  • Thomas Lawton, Thomas W. Lentz. Beyond the Legacy: Anniversary Acquisitions for the Freer Gallery of Art and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. vol. 1 Washington, 1998. p. 265.
Collection Area(s)
Chinese Art
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