Chinese chops – or stamps that leave identifying impressions on personal or official documents – have been in use for at least 3,000 years. Because these pieces are portable and small, creating them required not only advanced skills and specialized tools, but also a refined sense of design. All were commissioned by individuals, making each chop unique.
Chops fashioned from durable metals such as iron, bronze, or copper represented enduring authoritative rule, but scores were also carved from blocks of attractive, semi-precious hardstone. Emperors, nobles, and high-ranking officials traditionally prized chops made of jade, which became a Chinese cultural symbol of inner beauty and immortality. The Imperial Heirloom Seal of the Realm, created for the first Emperor of China from sacred jade and passed down through following dynasties, symbolized the legitimacy of what the Chinese called the “mandate from heaven.” From around 400 AD, chops carved from rare, lustrous golden-yellow Tianhuang stone, mined in the mountainous Shoushan region of East China, were also highly desirable.
During the Qing Dynasty (1636–1912), an era of flourishing artistic achievement, nobles and other high-ranking people wanted chops wrought from beautiful, locally sourced “chicken-blood stone.” The best ones, noted the Shanghai Daily in 2013, “are bright crimson … as though they had been splashed with the blood of a freshly slaughtered chicken.” Unfortunately, cinnabar, the component responsible for this auspicious hue, darkens when exposed to sunlight. So, the redder, the better.
In time, artists, scholars, and common folk acquired multiple chops. Used in bank transactions, on legal documents, or as personal signatures, many simply bore their owner’s name. Others were customized with select sobriquets, scenes of daily life, or symbols of particular interest. Some chops featured carved signatures or decorative elements along their sides. In addition, many bore mottoes, auspicious sayings, or personalized information worked in delicate, stylized scripts emulating calligraphy, another esteemed Chinese art.
Most chops, whatever their design, were impressed in auspicious silk- or plant-based red paste. Two distinct carving styles emerged. Those featuring high-relief designs, known as yin chops, created red backgrounds, leaving character images white. Those featuring incised intaglio designs, known as yang chops, created red characters, leaving backgrounds white. More intricate chops combined both yin and yang designs.
To facilitate their use, hardstone chops typically bore intricately carved, three-dimensional decorative knobs. Many were shaped like mythical creatures. One-horned qilins, complete with cloven hooves and dragon-like heads, reputedly promised good luck and prosperity. Fierce, stylized foo dog knobs guarded against harmful people and influences. Tortoise-shaped knobs, or those featuring rows of tiny tortoises, were said to insure longevity. Four-legged, serpent-like dragon-shaped ones represented Imperial strength and power. Chops featuring turtle-dragon knobs, which embodied physical and mythical features of both beasts, seem the most fearsome of all.
As chop designs became more fanciful, artists often used them to mark completed paintings, books, and calligraphy. Collectors, on acquiring one of these treasures, often added their own marks as acts of admiration. According to The China Online Museum website, the Qianlong emperor (1711 – 1799), who was famed for his literary ambitions, used as many as 20 different chops to mark favored pieces in his collections.
Chops added by such esteemed collectors were considered integral parts of each work. In fact, from one century to the next, choice Chinese paintings and calligraphy works often would end up covered by dozens of different chops. These indisputable proofs of appreciation and provenance don’t just increase the historical significance of such works; they also increase their value.