The Multiple Siyin Half Seals Reconsidering the Dianli jicha si (1373–1384) Argument

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Huiping Pang



This paper takes an initial but significant step toward penetrating the intricate historiography of the renowned siyin (“official seal”) half seal, which appears on 199 surviving or now-lost canonical Chinese paintings and calligraphies. Through a forensic tracking of the siyin art pieces, Ming dynasty court diaries, legal statutes, and other official seals ending in the words si and yin, I refute the dominant twentieth-century theory by arguing that this seal could not have originated from the eunuch-run Dianli jicha si (Office of Regulations and Investigations) in 1373–84, nor could it have been used by the Ming general Xu Da (1332–1385) on the Yuan palace collection as previously hypothesized. The alleged Dianli jicha si characters do not match the siyin seal strokes. New evidence suggests that the siyin seal came into existence after 1385, by which time the Directorate of Ceremonial (1385–1644) had superseded the shuttered Dianli jicha si office. Instead of simply dividing the various siyin seal impressions into binary genuine/forged categories as past studies have done, I demonstrate that three types of siyin seals can be considered authentic, all of which were used by different branches of the jingli si (registry office). The fact that a half seal was employed suggests that the jingli si registry office followed the kanhe inventory system, which imposed an official seal on the seam of both an inventorying object and its complementary ledger. By deconstructing the siyin historiography, this paper raises new socio-political questions about ownership, censorship, and imperial competition over the siyin-marked art pieces. It also builds a foundation for the further investigation of the role inventory systems played in mapping, defining, and legitimizing the royal power of the Ming dynasty.

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