Seals were ubiquitous and important objects throughout China's imperial period.

Legend has it that China's "first emperor," Qin Shihuangdi, had a magnificent seal made out of jade, and this seal became a symbol of rule with monumental significance. Both the Mongols, and later the Manchus, were said to have obtained this seal in the process of gaining political authority over China during the Yuan and Qing dynasties.

In imperial China, seals did not only signify political legitimacy, but served a variety of functions in political, commercial, legal and cultural spheres. They were used in mundane bureaucratic tasks, such as tax collecting, identified agents in commercial and legal transactions, and contributed to the formation and transformation of the subjectivity and sociality of the educated elite. Most people have probably seen Chinese paintings containing from one to dozens of small, vermillion seal imprints. From the Ming dynasty on, carving seals became a popular activity for elite Chinese men, and artists as well as collectors of art would mark painting, calligraphic scrolls, and rubbings to authenticate their role in creating, viewing, or owning those works. Seals, made of soft limestone and carved by literati with a special knife, became objects of art in their own right. Seal impressions were collected in a special type of book, called a yinpu.

Even as seals and seal carving became associated with "art," as opposed to "craft," amongst certain circles, seals carved by anonymous craftsmen and used for purposes of authenticating documents and signifying political legitimacy also persisted. In fact, the boundaries between the political, social, and legal were fluid.