Tuesday, 22 April 2014

A very personal possession – My Chinese seals

Among the so many things that I like to collect, there is nothing more personal than the stone seals with my Chinese name engraved on them. It is equivalent to my signature albeit a carved one. Although I do not collect them as avidly as I collect Yixing purple clay teapots, over the years I’ve collected quite a significant amount of them in various type of stones.
Vermilion seal paste in porcelain container with a utilitarian and an eleborate seal. 
 My very first stone seal was a gift from one of the constituent in Helen Clark’s constituency of Mt. Eden who hails from Shanghai, China. Lisa was a volunteer at the Labour Party Chinese Branch when we first met during the wet winter of 2002, slightly before the New Zealand general election. I was still learning Chinese at that time and Lisa was very kind to lend me some of her books where I noticed all the books have her name stamped in red. Out of curiosity, I asked her what is that and she patiently explain to me the details of a Chinese seal – from its history to types of script and usage. When she returned from her visit to China, she gave me my very first seal with my Chinese name carved on it.
Some of the seals in my collection from different stones
It didn’t take long for me to acquire the habit of stamping my books with the seal instead of writing my name. Then, my collection of personal seals increased too when I began to immerse myself with Chinese calligraphy.  And I added more when I studied in details the stones used to carve the seals. At that time, no trip to Beijing was complete without a visit to Liulichang, an alley in the heart of Beijing that are famous for antiques, works of art and materials needed for calligraphy, including the seal. Quite a number of famous seal carvers and shops that sell the beautiful stones are based there. It is also common to see stalls at tourist spots that one can get a personalized seal. At these stalls, some of the carvers are good but most of the time, they produce disappointing engraving job.
My name in Chinese character engraved with the seal script. 
Chinese seals take many shapes and are usually made of stone or occasionally, from ivory. While many seals are simply utilitarian in that the engraved characters on the bottom are just the characters of a person’s name, others are exemplary objects of art with a complex sculpture on the top and an engraved shallow relief scene or calligraphy on one side.
In order to use a seal, the engraved bottom must be pressed into a special red paste made of powdered cinnabar, a compound of mercury and castor oil that is bound together either with cut strands of silk or the dried mugwort herb, called moxa. They are differentiated as zhuni (朱泥) and yinni (). The price between the two is huge too but they produced different result. The vermillion seal paste, which is usually held in a nice two part porcelain container are treasured as equally as the seal itself and are often kept in box paddled with silk cloth.

P/S: Many thanks to Cheng Hock for adding one more seal into my collection. 

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