Chinese chops, or seals, are used to inscribe a person’s name or family name onto items such as government documents, art, and literary works. Used since the Shang dynasty (1600 – 1046 BCE), Chinese chops allowed the writer or the document signer to place their name on an object.
Chinese chops were also seen as a work of art when the carver, after carving the seal or chop end, turned the stone around and carved an animal or other character. Other carvings on Chinese chops include words or phrases, family mottoes, and pictures.
The Qin (221 – 207 BCE) dynasty emperor, Qin Shihuangdi, was the first emperor to begin using a chop as an official signature.
How Chinese Chops Are Used
The original use of Chinese chops may have been to help those who could not read easily identify certain characters on official government documents or even to make the documents appear official. Whether it was the emperor who could not read or write or the people of the emperor’s empire, using a chop to make a mark on a piece of paper helped everyone understand more about what they were being told.
Since ancient times, artists sign their paintings with their chop. The studio where the artist works adds its chop. People who buy the paintings add their chop. Some paintings from Ancient China have over 20 chop marks. The marks do not take away value from the painting but can actually increase the price depending on who purchased the painting over the years.
Ancient Chinese chops are rare, treated as art objects, and are quite expensive to purchase.
What Chinese Chops Are Made From
Until the Ming (1368 – 1644 CE) dynasty, Ancient Chinese chops were made from animal bones and horns, wood, gold, fruit pits, clay (pottery), and brass. During the Ming dynasty, Wen Peng (1489-1573), whose father was a famous calligrapher and painter, began carving chops from stone. Although stones are harder to carve, they are longer lasting than other materials. Stones are now the material of choice for most master seal carvers.
Stones most often used for making Chinese chops are shoushan, tianhuang, jixue shi (chicken blood stone), balin, qingtian, and changhua. Each type of stone has its own characteristics including color and softness or hardness for carving ease.
How Chinese Chops Are Carved
Master chop or seal engravers work hard to develop their craft. They must understand the type of stone or material the chop will be made from and how they need to carve differently based upon the material used.
Each Chinese character they carve – calligraphy – may need to be carved differently from how the character would be written on paper, such as thin or thick lines, rounded or square corners. Zhuan or seal script is the type of calligraphy characters most often used by master chop engravers to carve letters or words on the chops.
Chops are carved in two ways:
1) the character is carved in relief where the chop material is carved away from the character and the red ink outline of the character shows when the chop is pressed onto paper or
2) the character is carved in intaglio where the character is carved into the material (sunken into the material) and the character shows up as a white outline when the red-inked chop is pressed onto paper.
Chinese Chop or seal paste
The Ancient Chinese dipped chops into red seal paste. The red seal paste is usually made from two sources – silk or plant. Silk seal paste is made from cinnabar (mercury (II) sulfide or vermilion) a mineral ore found in the provinces, Guizhou and Hunan; castor, sesame, or hempseed oil; and silk strands. Silk seal paste is thick, oily, and bright red. Plant seal paste is made from cinnabar; castor, sesame, or hempseed oil; and mugwort leaves (moxa punk). Plant seal paste is loose, not oily, and dark red.
How Chinese Chops Are Used Today
In modern China, Chinese chops are still used on government documents, business documents such as contracts, and artwork. Businesses in China control the use of chops for official documents to assure that chops are only used when they are supposed to be used and only on certain documents.