Seal catalogues or seal albums (yinpu 印譜, also called yincun 印存, yinji 印集, yinshi 印式 or yinju 印舉) are a special genre of literature on art history. The catalogues reproduce seals owned by various collectors and are thus not only representations of the world of aficionados and conoisseurs, but also of the history of seal carving, of the Chinese script (with a focus on the small seal script), and also of administrative history – when talking about official seals (guanyin 官印). There exist about 2,000 seal albums, however, most of them cannot be counted as scholarly books.
The Song period 宋 (960-1279) was the age of the invention of "archaeology" or art history and was a time of abundant production of catalogues of collectibles of ancient provenance (guwu 古物). Among these, ancient seals, be they of imperial origin (xiyin 璽印), official origin (guanyin), or private origin (siyin 私印), also became an important group of tangible testimonies of the past. The oldest known catalogue of ancient seals was the book Ji guyin ge 集古印格 (also called Yinge 印格 or Tushupu 圖書譜), written by Yang Keyi 楊克一 around 1105. The catalogue Xuanhe yinpu 宣和印譜, commissioned by Emperor Huizong 宋徽宗 (r. 1100-1125), is unfortunately lost. It was an addendum to the art books Xuanhe shupu 宣和書譜 and Xuanhe huapu 宣和畫譜.
Other, private, early seal catalogues were Wang Houzhi's 王厚之 (1131-1204) Fuzhai yinpu 復齋印譜, Yan Shuxia's 顏叔夏 (b. c. 1106) Yingushi 印古式 or Jiang Kui's 姜夔 (1155-1209) Ji guyin pu 集古印譜. All of them are lost, just like the catalogues of the Yuan-period 元 (1279-1368) artists and collectors Zhao Mengfu 趙孟頫 (1254-1322), Qian Xuan 錢選 (1239-1299), Wang Shuzhi 王順之 and Yang Zundao 楊遵道. Wang Qiu's 王俅 (fl. 1146) Xiaotang jigu lu 嘯堂集古錄 is a general catalogue of objects in the collection of the author, and thus also includes a section on ancient seals. Wuqiu Yan's 吾丘衍 (1268-1311) Guren yinshi 古人印式 has also survived as part of his book Xuegubian 學古編.
Interest in ancient calligraphy and seal carving grew during the Ming 明 (1368-1644) and Qing 清 (1644-1911) periods, for which reason the number of catalogues – many of which reproducing objects of private collections – grew abundantly. Zhang Xueli's 張學禮 Kaogu zhengwen yinsou 考古正文印藪 from 1589 is one of the oldest surviving album presenting facsimiles of ancient seals (mo guyin 摹古印). The most outstanding early book is Gu Congde's 顧從德 (b. 1519) Ji guyin pu 集古印譜 which is divided in to 20 chapters and presents seals from the collections of several aficionados. It was later enlarged to the book Yinsou 印藪 compiled by Luo Wangchang 羅王常 (1535-1606), who also published the catalogue Qin-Han yintong 秦漢印統. A book called Qin-Han yinfan 秦漢印範 (or Qin-Han yintong) and published in 1607 by Pan Yunjie 潘雲杰, Yang Dangshi 楊當時 (carver), Lu Long 陸鑨 and Su Erxuan 蘇爾宣 (carver) likewise presented seals from the Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE) and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods. Other famous Ming-period books on seals are the anonymous Qin-Han yinlu 秦漢印簵 and Fanshi ji guyin pu 范氏集古印譜 (compiled by the owner of the Tianyige 天一閣 Library, Fan Qin 范欽, 1506-1885). Cheng Ji 程基 published in 1621 the first book reproducing seals of a contemporary seal carver, He Zhen 何震 (c. 1530-1604), with the book He Xueyu yinzheng 何雪漁印證.
Expertise on ancient seals grew with the time, and resulted in excellent scholarly and critical publications during the Qing period, like Cheng Conglong's 程從龍 Shiyizhai Qin-Han yinpu 師意齋秦漢印譜, Wang Qishu's 汪啟淑 (1728-1799) Han tongyin cong 漢銅印叢 and - in pocket format - Jinnang yinlin 錦囊印林, Qu Zhongrong's 瞿中溶 (1769-1842) Ji gu guanyin kaozheng 集古官印考證, Chen Jieqi's 陳介祺 (1813-1884) Shizhong Shanfang yinju 十鐘山房印舉, Wang Yun's 吳雲 (1811-1883) Erbailantingzhai gu tongyin cun 二百蘭亭齋古銅印存, Wu Shifen's 吳式芬 (1796-1856) Shuangyuhuzhai yincun 雙虞壺齋印存, Guyin oucun 古印偶存 by Wang Shijing 王石經 (1831-1918) et al., Wu Dacheng's 吳大澂 (1835-1902) Shiliujinfuzhai yincun 十六金符齋印存, Duanfang's 端方 (1861-1911) Taozhai cangyin 陶齋藏印 or Wu Yin's 吳隱 (1867-1922) Dun'an Qin-Han yinxuan 遯盦秦漢印選.
The first album specialising on official seals from the Han period is Xu Jian's 徐堅 (1712—1798) Xijing zhiguan yinlu 西京職官印錄 from 1754, while Wu Dacheng's Xu baijiaxing yinpu 續百家姓印譜 from 1900 is a collection showing only private seals. Wu's Qianxizhai guxi xuan 千璽齋古璽選 from 1889 only shows a selection of imperial seals. Yang Shoujing's 楊守敬 (1839-1915) Yinlin 印林 from 1877 shows a huge number of seals that could be used as signature (huaya 花押). A special book on signature seals from the Yuan period 元 (1279-1368), Yuanya jicun 元押集存, was published anonymously in 1919. Tang Hanjun 唐漢鈞 published in 2001 a comprehensive album of signature seals through history, Tang-Song-Yuan siyin jiaji jicun 唐宋元私印押記集存. Wang Qishu's Tuizhai yinlei 退齋印類 from 1767 assembled the imprints of seals (yintui 印蜕, yinhua 印花, yinji 印迹, yinhen 印痕) made of outstanding materials (and not the usual jade or brass), like precious metals, crystal, agate, ivory, porcelain, bamboo, etc. His Han tongyin cong from 1752 presents only imprints of Han-period seals made of brass, while Chen Jieqi's 陳介祺 (1813-1884) Fuzhai cang gu yuyin 簠齋藏古玉印 from 1887 assembles seals made of jade (nephrite), and the 1926 album of Fang Dejiu 方德九, Dejiu cuntao 德九存匋 shows seals made of earthenware.
He Tong's 何通 (fl. 1623) Yinshi 印史 is a pure album of artworks presenting seal imprints with the names of historical persons. Xu Rong's 許容 Guyuan yinpu 谷園印譜 from 1681 shows seals, each of which is inscribed with the phrase of one rhapsody, while Ba Weizu's 巴慰祖 (1744—1793) Baishoutu 百壽圖 from 1774 is an album in which each of the one hundred seals bears the inscription shou 壽 "longevity".
Other catalogues preserved the works of contemporary persons, like Zhang Hao's 張灝 (fl. 1617) Chengqingguan yinpu 承清館印譜, which assembled the seals created by Wen Peng 文彭 (1498-1573), He Zhen, Su Xuan 蘇宣 (1553-1626), Li Liufang 李流芳 (1575-1629), Gui Changshi 歸昌世 (1573-1644), and many other artists. Zhang also published the catalogue Xueshantang yinpu 學山堂印譜. Other contemporary collectors, seal carvers and publishers were Zhou Lianggong 周亮工 (1612-1672), author of Laigutang yinpu 賴古堂印譜, and Zhu Jian 朱簡 (b. 1570), author of Xiuneng yinpu 修能印譜. Further notable catalogues of private collectors and carvers of the late imperial period are Zhang Yanchang's 張燕昌 (1738-1814) Jitang yinpu 芑堂印譜, Ding Jing's 丁敬 (1695-1765) Xiling bajia yinpu 西泠八家印譜, Wu Xizai's 吳熙載 (1799-1870) Wu Rangzhi yinpu 吳攘之印譜, Zhao Zhiqian's 趙之謙 (1829-1884) Erjindietang yinpu 二金蝶堂印譜, Xu Sangeng's 徐三庚 (1826-1890) Siyushi yinpu 似魚室印譜, Wu Changshuo's 吳昌碩 (1844-1927) Foulu yincun 缶廬印存, Huang Shiling's 黃士陵 (1850-1908) Huang Mufu yincun 黃牧甫印存, as well as the two overview catalogues Dingchou queyu yinpu 丁丑劫余印譜 (1937) compiled by Ding Ren 丁仁 (1878-1949), Gao Shifu 高时敷 (1886-1976), Ge Changyin 葛昌楹 (1892—1963), and Yu Rencui 俞人萃 (1897-1942), and Ming-Qing mingren keyin huicun 明清名人刻印匯存 (1943) by Ge Changyin and Hu Zuoqing 胡佐卿. Not all of these catalogues are reliable. Wang Qishu's Feihongtang yinpu 飛鴻堂印譜 and Qingkuan's 慶寬 (1848-1927) Songyue Jushi jiyin 松月居士集印, for instance, reproduce many forgeries and doubtful specimen, and many genuine seals in minor quality.
Seal catalogues were either designed as overviews of the history of seal carving, but more often specializing on one single or just a few historical periods. Many collectors favoured seals from the Warring States 戰國 (5th cent.-221 BCE), Qin 秦 (221-206 BCE), and Han 漢 (206 BCE-220 CE) periods. Others focused on special types of seals, like such attached to sealed official letters (fengni 封泥) like Wu Shifen's Fengni kaolüe 封泥考略 and Haifeng Wushi cang Han fengni 海豐吳氏藏漢封泥, decorative private seals with signatures (huaya yin 花押印), or bilingual seals in Chinese and/or the Phags-pa script as used during the Yuan period.
There are different methods of reproducing original shapes of seals, imprints of original seals (qiangai 鈐蓋), woodcut imitations (muke fanmo 木刻翻摹), imitations cut into stone (moke 摹刻) and reproductions of imprints (yingyin 影印). The most valuable of these methods are stamps of original seals which preserve best the spirit of the original artwork. For imitations cut into stone, artists and publishers used bronze, nephrite or other stones, wood or – in modern times – zinc plates (xinban 鋅版), offset printing, or other modes of reproduction. Many reproductions preferred the use of the typical red sealpase (hongsha 紅沙), but there are also reproductions of seals based on rough rubbing (chanyi tuo 蟬翼拓) by attaching paper on the surface to be copied and leaving a grey-shaded area around the inscription, or high-quality black-canvas rubbing (wujin tuo 烏金拓) by which the background (everything except the characters and the outer frame) is fully blackened. In the latter mode, structures of the seal stone cannot be seen.