Chinese seal carvers
Chinese seal carvers are traditional craftsmen who make Chinese seals by carving characters and designs onto the base of blocks of stone, wood, ivory, jade and other solid material. Seal carving was a lucrative trade in the past as seals were used in Chinese business transactions to authenticate the validity of documents. Many seal carvers set up their businesses in Chinatown. By the early 1980s, however, the trade and profession had gone into decline as the signature and other methods of verification began replacing seals as means of authentication.1
The use of seals dates back to ancient China, and the art of seal carving was brought to Singapore by the early Chinese immigrants.2 Seals were used for commercial, legal, artistic and religious purposes. They functioned as company chops – the word “chop” is derived from the Hindi word chap, which means company stamps or trademarks) – or personal seals to verify the validity of documents. They are also used in Chinese calligraphy and artworks, and in the printing of talismans.3
The seal carving process begins with the customer selecting a seal from the seal maker’s assortment of blank seals. These seals, imported from China, are available in a variety of materials such as ivory, stone, horn and wood. They also come in various sizes and shapes such as square, round and oblong. Some seals also have pre-carved designs featuring an animal, human figure, fruit or a flower on their holders.4
Once the customer has selected a seal, the engraver decides on a design in consultation with the customer. A sample book of designs may be offered to help the customer explore options. A Chinese seal can be produced in relief or in intaglio. In relief, the background is etched out, producing coloured text on uncoloured background when stamped. In intaglio, characters are etched out instead, producing uncoloured characters on coloured background when stamped. Chinese characters executed in relief are referred to as yang (阳)-style script and conversely, those done in intaglio are referred to as yin (阴)-style scripts. It is not uncommon for a seal maker to make seals in pairs, one in each style.5 To appeal to tourists, both Western alphabet and Chinese characters may be incorporated into a single seal done and in a combination of relief and intaglio styles of carving.6
After deciding on the design of the seal, the carver commences work by levelling the base of the seal with sand paper and then emery paper, before fastening it to a clamp device. Since the characters have to be engraved in reverse image in order to be printed correctly, the seal maker first draws the design on a thin, white sheet of paper. He then turns the paper over and, with a sharp pencil, copies and transfers the design onto the seal.7
The carver proceeds to engrave using a set of special knives.8 Carving is a skill that requires deft, steady hands, focus and patience as the designs have to be engraved on small surfaces, some as small as 12 mm.9 A slip of the hand means the carver will have to smooth out the surface and start all over again. On average, a seal carver takes about an hour to complete a seal, averaging about five seals a day. A well-carved seal is characterised by symmetry, well-spaced characters, a balance of light and dark characters, and graceful character strokes.10
Upon completing his work, the seal maker checks it by stamping it with ordinary commercial purple ink. The seal undergoes a final sanding and brushing before a first impression is made with red seal ink, which is made of cinnabar paste (zhusha; 朱砂). The finished seal is packed into a box with a small supply of red paste. In the1990s, the price of a seal ranged from S$15 for a small plastic seal to S$100 for a large ivory piece.11 Collectors’ seals are priced even higher.12
As more people use signature as a method of authentication, personalised seals for commercial transactions became less sought after.13 Hand-engraved seals also faced competition from machine-engraved seals, though the latter lacks the character and uniqueness of hand-crafted seals.14 Today, seals are mainly acquired for Chinese art and calligraphy or as souvenirs by tourists.15
Naidu Ratnala Thulaja
1. Margaret Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’: Cottage Industries in High-Rise Singapore (Singapore: Graham Brash, 1993), 161–66 (Call no. RSING 338.634095957 SUL); “Chinese Seals,” Goodwood Journal 3rd Qtr (1979): 5, 7. (Call no. RCLOS 052 GHCGJ)
2. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 161–62; “Chinese Seals,” 5, 7; “Sealed with a Work of Art,” Straits Times, 17 January 1992, 18. (From NewspaperSG)
3. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 161–62, 164–65; “Chinese Seals,” 7; Leong Weng Kam, “Stone Seals – Status Symbols At One Time are Rare Collection Items Now,” Straits Times, 17 November 1978, 1. (From NewspaperSG)
4. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 162; “Chinese Seals,” 7; Leong, “Stone Seals.”
5. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 162; Noni Wright, “Little Known Chinese Art: The ‘Chop’,” Straits Times, 11 December 1951, 12. (From NewspaperSG.)
6. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 162; Judith Holmberg, “The Art of Seal Carving,” New Nation, 17 February 1978, 19. (From NewspaperSG)
7. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 162–63, 165.
8. Holmberg, “Art of Seal Carving.”
9. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 162; “Chinese Seals,” 5; “Sealed with a Work of Art.”
10. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 163, 166; “Chinese Seals,” 5.
11. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 163.
12. Holmberg, “Art of Seal Carving”; Teo Han Wue, “Marks of Artistry Still Bear Stamp of Approval,” Straits Times, 9 June 1983, 2. (From NewspaperSG)
13. “Chinese Seals,” 7.
14. Sullivan, ‘Can Survive, La’, 166.
15. Tessa Wong, “Seals with a Kiss,” Straits Times, 29 March 2002, 12. (From NewspaperSG)
The information in this article is valid as at 2017 and correct as far as we are able to ascertain from our sources. It is not intended to be an exhaustive or complete history of the subject. Please contact the Library for further reading materials on the topic.