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The Long History of Chinese Chop Carving

The unique system of identification seals or "chops" in China is a very old one, and an integral part of the nation's culture. Chinese chops are still a common sight in modern-day Asia as a way of marking one's identity on a document instead of a Western-style signature. Used by emperors and common folk alike, there is a great deal of history behind the use of Chinese chops.

Their Origins

Records of these stamps have been found as far back as the Shang dynasty, more than 3,000 years ago. Originally, they were used by officials who wanted to make their documents more easily recognized or understood by those who could not read. But as their use spread, the seal system was even adopted by the emperor. Qin Shihuang started using a chop as his official mark around 220 BCE, and such seals have been part of the Imperial office ever since.

That first Imperial seal was considerably larger than most personal chops, and read "Having received the mandate from heaven, may he lead a long and prosperous life". It was carved with great skill from a piece of fine jade. Known as the Heirloom Seal, it was handed down from ruler to ruler through many dynasties. During armed conflicts, the seal was fought over as it represented the true ruling power over China. By the end of the Tang dynasty (around 900 CE), the seal was lost as the country was divided in political upheaval and it has never been recovered.

With the loss of the Heirloom seal, all subsequent emperors have added to their chop collection to replace the ancient stamp. Currently, the Emperor has approximately 25 different carved chops at his disposal for official document use. History has shown that putting all official power into one single seal is not wise, and it's a mistake no one cares to repeat.

How They Have Changed

When they were first used, seal carving was done with animal bone, horn, wood, hardened clay and some metals (gold or brass). The tradition of carving chops in stone didn't take hold for many hundreds of years but that is how most stamps are made now. It is more difficult to carve delicate characters in stone but the final chop will last for centuries and it provides a clearer stamped impression.

Other than the improving of seal material, very little has changed for Chinese chops over the many years that they have been in use. They are still used in the same manner, usually with the same type of seal ink or paste made from vermillion and silk fibers. Modern inks are sometimes used, but even then the color red is the norm for Chinese seals.

Chinese Chops Today

Though they seem like an "old-fashioned" way of marking documents, the chop system is still very much alive in China. Seals are still used by most businesses as a way of officiating documents, and there can be several of them in use daily throughout a company. They are closely guarded to prevent fraudulent use.

The idea of using a seal is closely connected to Chinese culture, and custom-made chops are often carved for tourists who want to have a personalized souvenir of their time in China. Consider it your own little piece of history.