The Origin and Development of Chinese Seals or Chops



A chop is a seal carrying a name, rank or phrase meaningful to the owner, carved in exquisite, stylized calligraphy or in pictograph characters.  The chop is pressed into ink paste and stamped on paper to make an impression.  Because it will look the same every time, the chop is actually a form of printing and carries the same authority that a signature carries.  Each is unique because it is hand carved.


First formed from clay, chops made duplicate impressions and were first used on wet pottery, chops or seals were used on ceramic pieces, pressed into the clay the name of a specific artist or place where the piece was made.  However, chops discovered from the Shang Dynasty (1700-1027 B.C.) were not characters, or words, but patterns and were used as a Tokens of Promise.  Seals that were found with words often contained the word Xin meaning promise or Yin, meaning seal.  A token of promise was needed for officials to prove their identities in the execution of their authority.   Early seals were used by officials to protect goods or to mark goods as they proceeded through customs.  Seals have also been found that contain the word Ni, to forestall or stop, probably meaning to prevent documents or goods from being torn open or exposed.  They were also used to seal letters and to protect the privacy of the writer and the recipient.  Soldiers carried chops which served as an early form of identification.  During a time when many could not sign their name, chops would be made in a set that included a signature in Chinese and also one in pictograph characters.


Emperors also had handwriting seals which were applied to documents written by the emperor.  There was also a collector’s chop used to mark works of art belonging to the royal household.  Each ruler would add his own seal to the paintings inherited and eventually the palace collections bore the seals of generations of emperors.


Seals were made from bronze, silver, jade, rhino horn and ivory.  Jade, however was reserved only for royalty.  Seals were both cast relief and carved intaglio.  In the Han Dynasty (25-220 A.D.) soap stone was used for chops thus allowing the scholars themselves to carve them with a knife.  It was not until the Song Dynasty (960-1279 A.D.) that private seals became popular.  From then on, while maintaining their practical use as a token of promise, the Chinese seals also developed as an art form.  Many schools began to flourish and literary seals gained popularity.  During the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911 A.D.) these seals had their own distinct styles and, in fact, these styles are still used as models for engraving today.


In Taiwan and around Asia it is possible to have your own chop made in stone, wood or rubber.  It is very common and sometimes necessary, in China and Japan to use a chop as an official signature for legal and important documents today.




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