Chinese Name Seals

Chinese Name Seals

Last night I was over at the house of a friend who was getting ready for a gallery show.  She asked me to give her a hand with stamping her chop on some of her prints.  I had no idea what she was talking about, but when she brought out a wee little box with a hand-carved stamp, and lifted the lid of a dish filled with a thick, bright red paste, I was smitten!

The tradition of name stamps (colloquially known as "chops" as a bastardization of the Malaysian word for "stamp") is an ancient one in China.  These are a seal which are used in place of, or in addition to, a hand signature.  People in China stamp their checks with a seal, instead of signing them.  Seals serve as a form of identification as well, since only the owner of the seal will have access to it.  

The world of Chinese name seals is fabulously complicated.  Traditionally the seal is carved in stone, rather than being rubber affixed to wood (as we think of stamps here in the West).  There are entire towns in China which are essentially dedicated to carving these seals.  And there are also many specialists who make a living carving seals for people.  

Chinese seals can be wonderful pieces of hand-carved art.  My friend's seals were carved out of a rectangular solid marbled stone, the top of which had been carved into the form of a sleeping Fu dog.  This kind of craftsmanship adds to the cost of the stamp, but since it is a once-in-a-lifetime purchase, it's worth it!  If you want to be extra-crafty, many people carve their own seals.

There are several kinds of script which are in use for these stamps, from modern to ancient.  Additionally, there are two different forms of cut, based on the positive and negative space.  A "red character" or "yang" stamp inks the characters and leaves the background un-printed.  A "white character" or "yin" stamp inks the background and leaves the characters un-printed.  There is a third type of stamp, which uses both.

There are three classes of name stamp: Name, Free, and Studio.  A name stamp is your name rendered in Chinese ideograms.  A "free" stamp is a word or phrase, a little proverb or saying, or perhaps something that expresses something about your personality.  Like a very small bumper sticker, or a tattoo, if you will!  Studio stamps are used by artists of all kinds, including poets, painters, authors, and more.  Studio stamps are the name of the artist's studio, and are affixed as a mark of authenticity as well as identification.

The paste used to make the stamp is called vermillion, and is a thick, waxy goo.  This bright red ink is made from ground cinnabar (a mineral) mixed with silk to give it body.  The silk also adds minute textural fibers which give the printed stamps their characteristic rough-hewn look.

The tradition of the Chinese name seal is one that has a lot of resonance for crafters.  Imagine being able to "sign" your paintings, scrapbooks, knitting tags and more with these beautiful red Chinese characters!

Creative Commons-licensed image courtesy of Flickr user stopsign