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Korean Seals, Engraved with Style and Filled with History Updated: 2011-06-17 00:00:00 KST

Koreans prefer personal seals to signatures. Seals act as a form of identification.

[Interview : Choi Jin-sul] "I think the seal is an important mark of social position in Korea."

[Interview : Jeong Eun-ju] "The seal does not only represent a person's name, but everything about his or her identity."

Koreans use a certificate of seal registration to prove their identities for whatever purpose is needed.

[Interview : Lee Seok-gyu, Professor of history
Hanyang University] "In Korean, the word for "personal seal" is made up of the Chinese character for "seal" and the character for "mirror." The seal is proof of a person's existence as a human being. It proves a person's identity."

In order to showcase Korean seals and their role in Korean culture, a unique exhibit is taking place at the moment.

The exhibition features seals of all sizes, shapes and time periods! In particular, seals that belonged to ancient scholars are considered exemplary works of art.

[Interview : Bae Won-jeong, Curator
Hanyang University Museum] "Seals have played an integral role in the lives of many Koreans, but the convenience of signatures is taking away the significance of seals. This exhibition aims to present
the purpose, the properties, and the history of the seal."

The usage of seals dates back to the Silla Dynasty, and it is estimated that seals were used even before then.

[Interview : ] "The earliest known seal in Korea is the Lute of Naknang. The earth showing the mark of a seal is called luting. It is interesting to mention that the shape of the seal
at the time determined the social status of a person, and this became the basis for future Korean seals."

Besides the Lute of Naknang, there are also seals from the Goryeo and Joseon Dynasties.

[Interview : Bae Won-jeong, Curator
Hanyang University Museum] "Since seals from the Goryeo Dynasty were cast in bronze, they are usually called Goryeo Dongin. Because the seals had gaps called cheong-gong, we can assume
that the seals were portable, and could be used at any time."

Ancient seals have weathered the test of time very well, captivating the attention of every visitor.

[Interview : Lee Jeong-hwa, Visitor] "There are many types and designs of seals. It's fascinating. I also realized that I should treat my own seal with more care."

With a history stretching back thousands of years, seals are now an integral part of Korean tradition.

[Interview : Choi Byeong-hun, Seal engraving master] "There were many unofficial seals created during the 60s and 70s because they were used in so many different situations. On busy days, I would make up to 150 seals."

Creating an unofficial seal takes just one minute.

Seal engraving master Choi Byeong-hun now spends more time creating quality seals, now that the usage of unofficial seals is dropping. Creating a seal requires good wood carving and handwriting techniques.

[Interview : Choi Byeong-hun, Seal engraving master] "Because the engraving is made with four separate characters to create a unique signature, each seal is the best way to identify oneself."

Fifty years have passed since he began making seals. While seal usage may have dropped, he spares no effort in coming up with new, unique seals.

[Interview : Choi Byeong-hun, Seal engraving master] "I believe that if seals are kept in use in Korea by merit of their unique use in the world, it could lead to new functions for the seals, especially in font design."

One-of-a-kind seals are very popular here in Insa-dong, a famous tourist destination.

The designs feature a wide variety of fonts and artistic traits, breaking away from conventional models.

[Interview : Lee Jeong-han, Employee
Seal gallery shop] "Foreigners often buy seals as souvenirs from their trip in Korea. There are some who request their names to be engraved in their native languages, while others have their names engraved in Korean. Some have family seals made as souvenirs."

The seals are popular especially among Japanese tourists, as they also use seals on a regular basis.

[Interview : ] "It's pretty."

The customized seals are completely handmade. Once customers pick their font and seal design, the shop gets to work.

Depending on the font, the manufacturing process can take from 30 minutes to 1 hour.

[Interview : Masai Kohinata, Tourist
Japan] "Fantastic. It's really well-made."

For foreigners who aren't familiar with seals, these ancient art forms act as a testament to Korean artistic skills and techniques, and promote them around the world.

[Interview : Trek Penghy, Tourist
Cambodia] "It's a beautiful sculpture and painting."

[Interview : Gregorius Panatiakos, Tourist
Greece] "Letters I would probably send to you. Yeah, probably, love letters too, yeah, definitely."

There are seal sets for couples, as well as family members. When the seals from a set are brought together, the beauty is amplified twofold. Seals for couples are popular among the younger clientele.

[Interview : Yun Dae-gyu, Customer] "The seals are easy to relate to, and are presented in a more familiar way."

[Interview : Lee Jeong-tae, Customer] "I want to keep using my seal because it's unique. I think it's a really good idea, and I want to carry it around with me all the time."

Korean seals have evolved from being a method of self-identification to becoming works of art. Boasting an ancient history and a true uniqueness, the Korean seal is now an icon of the Korean culture on the world stage.


One note of caution though your official seal is quite valuable so you should protect it like your identity card.
I heard there's some process in getting it registered Your official is actually registered at a local government office.
They scan a picture of it and file it.
I really like the idea of going to Insadong for one of the more unique ones.
I saw those before and was really tempted to get one.
Why didn't you There were too many cool designs not enough time to choose.
So if you're in the area give some time to making your own seal to take back home.
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