The Art of Chinese Chop Engraving
A sentence frequently heard in the everyday life of a Chinese is "Please sign your name and put your chop on it." You need your name chop to withdraw money from the bank, to pick up a registered letter from the post offic,e to legalize a contract, and to acknowledge receipt of official documents. In China, from ancient times to the present, from official government business to private affairs, no matter how important or trivial, your chop affixes your credit and your promise. After signing your name, your chop is still required for a document to be legally binding. Name chops are also the constant companions of Chinese calligraphers and painters. Artists follow the custom of stamping their works with their name chops to "sign" them and as proof of authenticity. Despite its small role in the life of a Chinese.
Name chops are engraved by hand. Through the technique of carving, name chops combine the beauty of written Chinese characters and line drawing. A name chop produces virtually the same image of the same characters of figures no matter hwo many times it is used, and so can be considered a forerunner of one of the four great inventions of the Chinese--printing (the other three being the compass, gunpowder, and papermaking). Its importance cannot be underestimated.
Traditionally, the most common materials for making chops were copper, for the general population, and jade, for the emperor and nobility. Both copper and jade are highly durable materials which must be slowly and carefully cast or ground by an expert craftsman in a very exacting process. By the end of the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368 A.D.), however, the great painter Wang Mien *** began to carve his own chops from pyrophylite, a relatively soft mineral. When a skilled calligrapher himself carves a chop, not only does the beauty of the calligraphy come through, but the special effect achieved by knife carving as opposed to grinding is a particularly pleasing one. This method of chop carving soon became very popular among the literati of the time, who later added a new feature to the chop: a poem that could be recited or chanted was written on one side of the chop, based on the artist's feelings and surroundings when he carved the chop. Or he might simply record his name, hometown, and the date on which the chop was carved. The embellishment reveals a great deal about Chinese artistic life of the time. Due to vigorous promotion by literati over the centuries, the art of chop engraving in time joined traditional Chinese calligraphy and painting to form a three-way partnership of the fine arts in China.
The most important part of chop carving is the engraving of the stamping surface. And half the task of carving a shop is done once the calligraphic style has been chosen, and the arrangement of the characters decided; this is called the "composition" of a chop. Carving the characters with skillful, confident cuts is called "knife technique." The marriage of these two techniques results in a totally new form of written expression, referred to as "calligraphic technique." Chop engraving that is of a certain standard or higher displays excellence in the three areas of "composition," "knife technique," and "calligraphic technique." To further increase the refinement and beauty of the chop design, chop engravers may, in addition to carving the stamping surface, create an elaborate sculpture on the top of the chop, or cut out a scene on the sides in shallow relief. Or they may sculpt a unique and breathtaking original design into the chop based on the natural grain and coloring of the stone used, further increasing the artistic value of the chop. The combination of two and three-dimensional art on a chop gives it special artistic depth and sophistication.
After a chop has been engraved, it must be pressed into red ink paste, then stamped onto paper before it becomes an object of practical use; so red ink paste is an indispensable implement in chop art. Red ink paste is made from cinnabar, a mercuric compound. The most important feature of red ink paste is its hue and luster; good ink paste has a brilliant, lustrous red color that retains its original beauty over the ages. Porcelain is the most ideal material for the ink paste container. Ink paste must be frequently stirred with a stirrer so that the oil does not separate to the top, leaving dried out paste underneath. Those who take their chop implements seriously store the ink paste container in a wooden or satin tapestry box to protect the paste from accidental bumps or knocks.
The art of chop carving is highly venerated in the Republic of China on Taiwan. Chops constitute an independent category in fine arts exhibitions, and classes in chop art are held in college and university art departments around the country. There is a privately administered Chop Engravers' Association of the Republic of China that puts out publications and holds lectures, seminars, and exhibitions to vigorously promote interest in this unique Chinese art. There are also study sessions led by an instructor, or discussion gatherings held among people involved in chop art; or sometimes imprints from chop creations are published in book form and exchanged as gifts. Chop art provides opportunity for quiet and satisfying leisure activity that is well worth promoting among the general population.
In Taiwan, chop art is not only a form of artistic expression; the ubiquitous chop engraving shops that dot the country attest to its practical nature. Commonly seen in chop engraving shops are uncarved chops made of wood, stone, metal alloys, and synthetic fiber that the customer can pick from according to personal preference and need. An even wider selection of calligraphic styles is his for the choosing, from the traditional seal script, or chuan shu ***, to clerical script, or li shu ***, to regular script or k'ai shu ***, to the various scripts designed exclusively for use in chop engraving, such as the "bird," "insect," and "phoenix" styles--and on to an endless number of further styles and variations. The swelling stream of tourists and students coming to Taiwan has sparked foreign interest in chop art; a one-of-a-kind name chop is a highly personalized and unique souvenir to keep and treasure. This uniqueness assures the continued thriving of this art regardless of geographical boundary or passage of time.
Chop carving combines two and three dimensional art.