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Both China and Iran have character styles that are characterized by being (at least approximately) based on a square raster and by "filling up the plane" in the sense that if you take any 2x2 squares from that raster, at least one square will be background and at least one square will not.

In Iran, such writing is often seen on mosques:

Square kufic inscription on a mosque in Iran

(I have marked the word "Allah"/الله)

but it also appears on the national flag:

Square kufic writing on the Iranian national flag

(this apparently reads "Allahu akbar"/الله أكبر (+ one repetition))

This character style is apparently called "Square kufic" and wikipedia has some more beautiful examples.


In China, a similar character style is used on seals. These ones appear on a 12th century copy of the famous painting "The night revels of Han Xizai":

Square Chinese seal from the painting "The night revels of Han Xizai" Round Chinese seal from the painting "The night revels of Han Xizai"

And this one on the similarly famous 12th century painting "Along the river during the Qingming festival":

Square Chinese seal from the painting "Along the river during the Qingming festival"


Now China and Iran are quite distant, which would make it seem as if these writing styles must have emerged independently from each other. However, there actually is an instance where these blocky Chinese seals and blocky Persian/Arabic religious inscriptions were used in the same place at the same time: In Ilkhanid Iran, in the late 13th/ early 14th centuries.

At that time, both Iran and China were ruled by Mongols, and the Mongol rulers in Iran (the Ilkhans) found it politically expedient to recognize the Mongol rulers in China (the Yuan dynasty) as their overlords. For this reason, they received seals from China, and they apparently also made up some Chinese-language seals themselves. Below are seals of the Ilkhans Öljeitü (image source with transcription of the seal, note that the direction of writing seems to vertical and then from right to left) and Ghazan (image source with transcription of the seal, ditto about writing direction):

seal of Öljeitüseal of Ghazan

Öljeitü (the one with the red seal above) had a large mausoleum built for himself which stands to this day, and which houses several square Kufi inscriptions, both inside and, quite prominently, on the outside (image source):

square Kufi inscription on the basis of the dome of Öljeitü's mausoleum


For what it is worth (but not part of the question), similar styles have been used for the Phagspa script by the Yuan dynasty as well (image source):

Yuan dynasty script with Phags-pa inscription


Given the formal similarities between these character styles, I have wondered if these writing styles are related, or if maybe at least one clearly precedes the other. The wikipedia article on Kufic scripts (also linked to above) says the Iranian writing style dates from the 12th century. The Chinese examples I found are on paintings from the 12th century, but I can neither rule out that there are earlier examples, nor that these seals were only added later. Unfortunately the only articles on the Chinese styles that I found were somewhat unspecific.

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  • Why do you think this is any different from stylized writing of other cultures?
    – Spencer
    Jan 26, 2022 at 23:31
  • @Spencer I have never really noticed such things with latin or cyrillic characters. Certainly not with latin-character writing that predates the 20th century. Even very pixel-y latin-character writing today tends to have more blank spaces and thus violate the "2x2-square rule" mentioned in the first paragraph. I admit I am not really familiar with South Asian scripts.
    – Jan
    Jan 27, 2022 at 0:10
  • From design point of you it makes only sense with only certain types of characters and in certain uses (eg mosaics, seals in your examples). Latin-based lettering have different widths for different characters, proportional typefaces are common and most monospaced designs just doesn’t look good.
    – Greg
    Jan 27, 2022 at 7:15
  • During the Yuan dynasty, there was a close relationship between China and Persia. I would not be surprised if there was a relationship between these square seals. Jan 27, 2022 at 18:25

2 Answers 2

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I can speculate about one possible relationship between the two styles.

Your Persian examples include square seals of Oljeitu and Ghazan.

Ghazan was born 1271 and ruled from 1295-1304.

Oljeitu was born 1282 and ruled from 1304 to 1316.

At that time the Ilkhans were more or less the vassals of the Great Khagan of the Mongols. Since 1271 the Great Khagan of the Mongols was also the Huangdi of the Yuan Dynasty of China.

If those seals were government seals of Ghazan and Oljeitu they might have been made in China and sent by the Great Khagan to the signify appointing Ghazan and Oljeitu to the position of Ilkhan. In which case the writing on them would be in either Chinese seal writing or the Mongolian script.

If the seals were made in Iran they might be in the Persian, Arabic, Mongolian, or Chinese language, possibly written in the square kufic script.

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  • Yes, the wikipedia article about the Ilkhanate actually mentions that they received seals from China (en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ilkhanate). I also now added links to transcriptions of the two Ilkhanid seals mentioned in my question.
    – Jan
    Jan 28, 2022 at 0:05
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Re. the Chinese writing style, it turns out this particular style is called "Nine-folded seal script" (九叠篆) and first got popular during the Song dynasty in China, first appearing on coins in the 11th century. Note that this particular coin exists in a number of versions, from very readable to very stylized.

This means that if these two writing styles are related, their relation is older than the Ilkhanate or the Yuan dynasty (as stated in the question, the Square Kufic script seems to have been invented in the 12th century). I do not think it is entirely implausible that they are related, but it is also quite possible that they were developed independently from each other.

It might also be worth noting that the creative process is different for the Iranian and the Chinese writing. While the Iranian style is filling up the blank space with lots of simplified writing, the Chinese style is filling the blank space by making the characters more elaborate, e.g. by turning 王 into

highly stylized version of the character 王,

or 理 into

highly stylized version of the character 理,

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  • Perhaps it is more meaningful to specifically ask if nine-folded seal script is related to the Iranian "blocky" writing style. The first two Chinese seals are nine-folded seal script, and are deliberately elaborate and difficult to read. The third one is very standard seal script, and says 宣統鑑賞 (conoisseured by the Xuāntǒng Emperor), so the seal itself is late Qīng Dynasty.
    – dROOOze
    Jan 30, 2022 at 3:10
  • 1
    Here's an image of Han-era personal seals which are all "blocky" but predate nine-folded seal script by centuries - these blocky seals probably had their origin in Warring-States-era Qin State seals; you can Google image search 秦印徵 to see some samples.
    – dROOOze
    Jan 30, 2022 at 3:16
  • @drOOze If I had known the term Nine-folded seal script I would not have needed to ask this question. Those Han-era seals are blocky, but those with simpler characters also have empty spaces. My question was (meant to be) about seals without blank space.
    – Jan
    Jan 30, 2022 at 11:14

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