An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Yinzhi 印旨

Jun 12, 2023 © Ulrich Theobald

Yinzhi 印旨 "The meaning of seals" is a book on seal inscriptions written during the late Ming period 明 (1368-1644) by Cheng Yuan 程遠 (fl. 1617), courtesy name Yanming 彦明, from Wuxi 無錫, Jiangsu.

The book is the product of an age of intensive collection and publication on ancient seals, but most books were of minor quality and did not correctly reproduce the appearance of ancient seal-script texts. Cheng therefore published the book Gujin yinze 古今印則 with a length of 4 juan, in which he tried to preserve information on seals from the early imperial period. The Yinzhi is attached to the Gujin yinze.

The text focuses on the right use of the brush in producing the inscription, and that of the knife to cut it into the carrier material. Cheng holds that the use of the brush involved intention (yi 意), and only the right application of this intention to the writing tool would result in the correct performance of velocity in individual brush strokes (chicheng hedu 馳騁合度). The use of a knife involved its sharp edges (feng 鋒), the right use of which likewise required the right way of combining cutting and stops (cai dun wei fa 裁頓爲法). Like in calligraphy, the creation of seal inscriptions required the right balance of shape (xing 形), spirit (shen 神), and rhythm or "rhyme" (yun 韻). The spirit should be hidden, but not concealed too much, and the sharpness of strokes was to be revealed, but not exposed in an exaggerated manner. Strength combined with retrogression (xiangbei 向背) were the expressions of good shape, and the "pulse" (mai 脈) of a written character or of individual parts of it combined growing with slowing (qi fu 起伏), and thus demonstrated a kind of "commitment" (chengying 承應) in its function. The result of this method was that of a single stroke could "carry a thousand bounds", and the spirit of a single point in a character strengthened the whole. Cutting words into the carrier requested the same dedication of the whole body as calligraphy did. It required vertical use of the blade as well as its inclined use, it required velocity in straight parts, but also ups and downs, progression and regression, the creation of straight lines and of curves and bends – for all these steps, a natural attitude was to be applied to transform the intention into shapes (wu bu zi ran ru yi 無不自然如意).

Cheng holds that just like poems were the "voice of the mind", written words were the "image of the mind" (xin hua 心畫), and thus a direct and visible expression of the personality and character of the writer or artist. In this context, he points at Chen Wei's 陳韋 book Xiangzijing 相字經, a kind of graphological text (lost).

Just like in calligraphy and painting, it was possible to rate the quality of seal inscriptions. Cheng Yuan therefore made use of the concept of "untrammeled" (yipin 逸品) and "inspired" (shenpin 神品) artworks, marvellous ones (miaopin 妙品), and competent inscriptions (nengpin 能品):

氣韻高舉如碧虚天仙游下界者,逸品也。 Energy and rhythm are lofty like a heavenly fairy travelling down to the world – this is untrammeled.
體備諸法錯縱變化如生龍活虎者,神品也。 The body of the inscriptions follows all rules, but in a flexible way like living dragons and lively tigers – this is inspired.
非法不行,奇正迭運,斐然成文如萬花春谷者,妙品也。 Nowhere without rules – a flexible advancement of outstanding and standard, a brilliant whole like a sea of flowers in spring vales – this is marvellous.
去短集長,力遵古法,如範金琢玉各成良器者,能品也。 Levelling the short and accumulating the long, following the standards of old, like gilded metal and carved jade of precious vessels – this is competent.

The text of the Yinzhi is also included in the series Zhuanxue suozhu 篆學瑣著.

Hong Jinghui 洪敬輝 (1996). "Yinzhi 印旨", in Zhou Gucheng 周谷城, ed. Zhongguo xueshu mingzhu tiyao 中國學術名著提要, Vol. Yishu 藝術卷 (Shanghai: Fudan daxue chubanshe), 516.
Wang Chongren 王崇人, ed. (2002). Zhongguo shuhua yishu cidian 中國書畫藝術辭典, Vol. Zhuanke 篆刻卷 (Xi'an: Shaanxi renmin meishu chubanshe), 49, 275.