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Chinese ID: The Chop/Seal - March 2002 Newsletter


In the modern world, people use driver's licenses, computer passwords, and PIN numbers as a means of identification. Expensive keyboards feature a fingerprint scanner, restricting computer access to one user only. DNA testing can match a single drop of blood with its owner. This identification technology is impressive, but only a few decades old—all of it is predated almost 3,000 years by an ancient form of practical Chinese art: the chop.

A Chinese chop, or seal, is a personal, hand-carved name stamp used along with signatures on formal documents. Stamped in red ink, a chop is an important form of both identification and legal verification. Though the use of chops is declining throughout most of modern mainland China, many people still use their chop to sign for registered mail, withdraw money from the bank, and sign contracts. Government officials stamp their chop on legal documents, and artists stamp their chop on their work. If you look closely at some of our teaware and tableware, you might notice a small chop stamped or carved on the surface.

Chops first appeared in the Shang Dynasty (1766-1122 BC) not as stamps, but as jia-gu-wen, or “oracle bones”—questions for the gods carved in tortoiseshell and ox bones. Chops further developed as symbols of identification and ownership during the Qin Dynasty (221-207 BC), when people began engraving their names into tools and utensils. From the Qin to the Han (206-219 AD) Dynasty, Chinese political unity and economic prosperity bolstered the development of all Chinese arts, and the chop was no exception. Royalty and private citizens alike now stamped their chops on documents, in red ink or on clay seals, as marks of certification and symbols of power. Government and military officials hung small, flat chops bearing their rank and title from their belts as a means of identification. Chop material denoted social rank—jade and bronze xi chops for the emperor and nobility, cast copper yin for the general public. Valued for their durability, jade, bronze and copper had to be painstakingly ground and molded in a long production process, leaving little time for imaginative chop-making. Creative chop-carving was considered recreation for the Chinese literati, and even artists mostly carved chops commissioned by wealthier officials.

But when the famous painter Wang Mien (1287-1358 AD) began to carve his own chops out of softer stone to stamp his paintings, more artists turned to chop carving as a form of creative expression. More and more artists signed their work with their personal seals, and a well-placed artist's chop in red ink enhanced the value of a piece. The stamping surface of the artist's chop, once restricted to his name, might instead feature popular sayings, artists' aliases, and information about the painting it decorated—these new nameless seals were called “leisure seals.” The handle of an artist's chop was decorated with animal sculptures, poems, notes about their carving or painting inspiration, or simple background information on the origin of his chop.

Great calligraphers began to use the stamping surface of a chop as a new medium for their skills, and many new script styles developed strictly for use in chop carving calligraphy—in fact, many Chinese script styles, like chuan shu (seal script), developed solely as chop carving scripts. Among these were the elaborate “bird,” “insect,” and “phoenix” style. Today, many of these seal scripts have been abandoned for simpler, more classic scripts, but calligraphic carving techniques remain a hallmark of modern chop carving. The carver's blade is often called “the iron brush,” and artful calligraphy enhances the value of the chop.

On such a small art form, tiny details affect the piece in big ways. The message on the seal determines usage and personal value to the owner. Name seals are always used for formal signatures. A favorite riddle or cautionary saying on a leisure seal might be appropriate for signing personal belongings or stationery, but not for signing a contract (imagine stamping a business contract with a proverb like “Do not hanker for easy money!”).

The shape of the chop also conveys meaning. Most chops, especially name chops, are square, but chops may be shaped like circles, long ovals, gourds, animals, and even household objects like kettles. Many businesses use round chops as a good luck charm—the shape represents money rolling in. A square chop conveys stability, good for signing contracts and deeds. Chops in more fanciful shapes make a bold artistic statement, but none are used on official documents. Stamping a gourd shape on an important contract is considered downright crude.

Within the shape of a chop, artists must arrange the characters in a legible and aesthetically pleasing design. The script style, shape, and number of characters presents seal engravers with a serious design challenge. Artists must squeeze long titles of rank, proverbs, or poems into less than a square inch of space. Even the number of strokes in each character affect the quality of a chop. Some numbers are luckier than others, so artists will often subtract or add a few extra marks in order to avoid carving an unlucky number of strokes on a chop.

Material, too, is an important influence on the value of the chop. To some extent, chop material still reflects social rank: modern central Chinese government offices use brass chops, and local branch offices use wood chops. Today, for practical purposes, banks often use inexpensive wood and ivory. Machine-carved decorative and personal chops are made of more durable metal alloys and inexpensive stones, like soapstone. Etched crystal and glass are both popular for personal use, but natural crystal is considered luckier, and thus more desirable, than glass. Artists prefer stone that is durable yet easily carved, especially precious and colorful Shoushan stone. Chop art collectors and wealthier chop buyers can purchase jade and gold chops, sometimes paying as much as $2,200 for a good piece of Burmese jade, in addition to $90-$130 per character for a custom artisan-crafted chop.

But no matter what a chop is made of, it's no good without ink for stamping. Traditional seal ink is a bold shade of vermilion red, although people in mourning often stamp with black or blue ink. Formulas vary, but most vermilion inks are made of powdered red cinnabar and seed oil. To make an ink pad, dry plant fibers are soaked with the cinnabar solution, creating a potent, long-lasting ink.

Despite the diminishing official use of chops as signatures, chop carving persists as an important art form, especially in Taiwan where chops are still commonly used. In art exhibitions throughout the island, chops are a special category separate from painting, sculpture, and calligraphy. Chop carving is an integral part of the curriculum at Taiwanese art universities. Even today's Taiwanese souvenir shops boast personalized seal-engraving services in “15-minutes-or-less”, much shorter than the original production time of early jade and copper chops.

So why would a simple stamp be such a trusted form of security for so many centuries? Handwritten Chinese is precisely drawn in a block script that is easy to copy. While this simple block style makes it easier to learn written Chinese, it also makes it easier to forge Chinese signatures. A hand-carved chop, however, is unique. Even mass-produced chops carved with electric tools must be made one at a time, by hand, resulting in slight variations of the stamping surfaces. Individual security is a byproduct of the artistic process. Of course, it helps if you have a unique name to begin with. 20th century seal engraver Teng San-Mu used an artist's alias that no one else would ever dare to copy: “Man of Manure.” One of his personal seals reads, “Stinks for Ten Thousand Years.”

While we do not offer custom-carved name chops, Mrs. Lin's Kitchen features a number of decorative chops, perfect for accenting your cards and letters, book collections, photo albums, and more. Choose a symbol of good luck or your favorite Chinese zodiac animals—we're sure to have the right chop for you.


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