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What are the characters on this seal?

enter image description here

Flipped image for easier reading:

enter image description here

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    Hmmm maybe it'd be easier if you mirror this image so that we can read the characters it would actually print? – Vim Aug 12 '18 at 18:31
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Just to venture a guess. I think these characters (mirror them before you read of course) should read 李濟懋印, meaning this seal was a private one that belonged to the person known as 李濟懋 (or 李济懋 in simplified Chinese).

There are several points we can take note of:

  • What script are these characters in: imo most likely they are in an early form of the seal script, maybe the bronze inscription, or somewhere between. However their curvature isn't sufficiently smooth, hence distinguishing them from the standardised seal script later established in the 秦(Qin) dynasty.

  • Which order to read in: it is well known that traditional Chinese characters read from right to left and top to bottom. But in Chinese seals, it's also quite typical to read the characters counter-clockwise starting from the top right character. In this image such a counter-clockwise order is confirmed by the placement of the two characters 李(top right) and 印(bottom right), because 李 as a surname must be the start and 印 meaning "seal" must be the end.

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As the other answer stated, the characters are 李濟懋印.

enter image description here

Approximate idea of character development - this may not be strictly how the characters evolved over the years.


「李」(originally a kind of fruit > plum, Baxter-Sagart OC: /*C.rəʔ/) is comprised of

  • 「木」, a semantic component, reinterpreted from「來」(Baxter-Sagart OC: /*mə.rˤək/, /*mə.rˤək/), a phonetic component;

  • 「子」, a semantic component.

「木」is relatively similar in appearance to its regular script counterpart.


「子」originally depicted a baby or child, which is its original meaning.



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This form directly leads on to its seal script shape. Compared with an adult human「大」, the child's head is emphasised and legs are de-emphasised.



enter image description here
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「濟」(originally to cross a river) is comprised of

  • 「氵/水」, a semantic component, explanation given here;

  • 「齊」, a phonetic component.


What「齊」exactly depicted is not universally agreed upon. However, most sources agree that it was originally comprised of three of some kind of plant:



enter image description here
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The primary attested meanings are even, alike, level.

Later on, decorative marks in the shape of「=」were added on:

戰國

enter image description here
陳侯因⿱次月敦
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The bottom two plants then had their stalks extended, leading on to the seal script shape:



enter image description here
咸陽瓦
 

「懋」(diligent, hard-working; used as a name) is comprised of

  • 「楙」, a phonetic component;
  • 「心」, a semantic component.

「楙」(quince; sometimes interchanged with「茂」flourishing) is comprised of

  • 「林」, a semantic component;
  • 「矛」, a phonetic component.

An ancient variant of「懋」did not include「林」:



enter image description here
京都2062
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隷定
enter image description here

 

The top component is often seen as the oldest form of「矛」. Later individual appearances of「矛」clearly depicts a long spear or pike with a curved handle:

西周

enter image description here
⿹戈冬簋
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The head of the weapon and the handle was subject to shape corruption, e.g. into three「刀」:



enter image description here
秦家嘴1.5
 

Further stylising from similar shapes leads to



enter image description here
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enter image description here
說文解字
 

the latter of which is the seal script form found in the photo.


「心」depicts a heart:



enter image description here
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Later on, the chambers of the heart were exaggerated, and the shape became more stylised:

西周

enter image description here
史墻盤
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enter image description here
包2.218
 


enter image description here
說文解字
 

Unfortunately, the shape for「心」in the photo is exceedingly uncommon and difficult to recognise. All common forms of「心」have curves which open at the top, not closed like in the photo. This situation happens very frequently in deciphering characters in seals and calligraphy pieces, and at this point other methods will have to be used to determine the entire character. Two possible methods are:

  • Use a handwriting recognition tool to write the known components (well) and an approximation of the unknown component, e.g. in Pleco: enter image description here

  • Use Ideographic Description Characters or similar decomposition methods in a search engine:

    enter image description here

The most viable candidates are「壄」(variant of「野」) and「懋」. Google search also reveals that "李濟懋" is an actual name, unlike "李濟壄", which should increase confidence that the character is「懋」.

If the above process is not satisfactory, we can go further and look for variants of similar shapes in a comprehensive site like 教育部異體字字典.

「印」depicts a hand「𠀉」pressing down on a kneeling person「卩」, which is also its composition.



enter image description here
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The relative proportions and positions of the hand and person have changed throughout history. A bronze script form which looks similar to the photo is:

西周

enter image description here
毛公鼎
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