Seal of approval

Updated: 2011-06-10 10:45

By Zhang Xi (China Daily European Weekly)

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 Seal of approval

The ancient art of seal engraving has a history of more than 3,000 years. Xu Zhiqiang / for China Daily

The dying tradition of seal engraving has now become a UNIVERSITY major

The Beijing Olympic Games were billed as modern China's coming out party and as billions of people around the world watched on television, a striking and very traditional image of the nation was revealed to all. The Games' official emblem depicted an ancient seal inscribed with a dancing figure, which was also in the shape of the character Jing, which means Beijing.

This iconic Chinese image was stamped into the memories of everyone who watched the 2008 Games, and was perhaps the biggest ever promotion for seal engraving, an art form that can be traced back 3,000 years.

Throughout history seals were engraved by artisans to act as symbols of state power and personal identification.

Nobles and government officials handed a tally to their trustees in order for them to perform official negotiations. The seal stood for responsibility, obligation, trust and promise, and paved the way for clear communication and authenticity of the message. The seal itself was a representative of the sender.

After the 13th century, seal engraving started to become an art form in China and became part of a scholar's standard paraphernalia.

 Seal of approval

The seals not only included names, but also featured poems or phrases that expressed the bearer's individuality. Some seals were engraved with pictures.

The special characters used on the engravings are different from normal everyday characters and evolved from oracle-bone inscriptions. These seal characters appeared in the Zhou Dynasty (1046 - 256 BC) and the neat structure of oracle-bone inscriptions lays foundation for the form of modern Chinese character.

Now, 21st century scholars have taken up the seal engraving cause. Last year, China's first seal engraving postgraduate received his degree from the Chinese Academy of Seal Engraving Art, the only Chinese institute that offers the subject as a major and purely focuses on research and the preservation of the tradition. This year, five more postgraduates are taking the course in an effort to keep this ancient art form alive.

In recent years, seal engraving exponents have been busy promoting their handiwork.

In 2006, the Chinese Academy of Seal Engraving held an exhibition in Torino, Italy, that was the first of its kind in Europe. The institute plans to hold an exhibition in the United States in 2012.

During the 2008 Beijing Olympics and 2010 Shanghai Expo, seal engraving experts also used these huge promotional events to show off the tradition, and in 2009, UNESCO listed seal engraving on the list of the Intangible Cultural Heritages.

"Seal engraving has raised much attention at home and overseas after the 2008 Beijing Olympic," says Luo Pengpeng, vice-president of the Chinese Academy of Seal Engraving Art and the person who successfully applied to UNESCO for the protection order.

"The success of being listed as the Intangible Culture Heritage further enhanced the influence of the art. For example, before the art form was listed, many people thought seals were only used for official documents. But they now know those stamps are different from seal engraving."

Xiling Society of Seal Arts, China's first and largest academic society for seal engraving with more than 300 members, staged a special show during the Shanghai Expo and many specially made seals were given to visiting foreign leaders.

"The society has already held seal engraving exhibitions in the United States and Europe during last four years," says Tong Yanfang, deputy director of the Hangzhou-based Xiling Society of Seal Arts. "And we will demonstrate our art work in London this September."

From an international perspective, seal engraving is still a small-scale art form, which is mostly confined in China, Japan and South Korea. Most of the foreign members of Xiling Society of Seal Arts are Japanese.

"Very few art exchange activities in Western countries are specifically organized for seal engraving," says Cai Shunong, member of Xiling Society of Seal Arts and deputy secretary-general of Calligraphers Association in East China's Zhejiang province.

"In most cases, seal engravers are just part of a group of artists who go abroad."

Seal engravers not only master the art of carving, they must learn the seal characters.

"Learning seal characters is the first barrier for beginners of seal engraving, and then these characters must be in a good layout to look beautiful. They make seal engraving a difficult art to master," says Luo.

Luo says the government in recent years has been promoting the art form by giving away seals to VIPs. In the past, visiting foreign leaders always received silk or china as presents but today they are receiving seal engraving gifts.

But presidents and heads of state are not the only foreign visitors enjoying the art. Seals have also become popular gift for everyday tourists.

They visit a store and tell the engraver their names and he thinks of a Chinese translation. About an hour later a personal seal has been made.

Beijing's Panjiayuan market is a popular antiques and handicrafts center where dozens of seal engravers operate. Prices vary from 50 yuan to 2,000 yuan (5.2-210 euros), depending on the material used to make the seal. "Foreign tourists prefer seals with knobs, and the Chinese dragon is their favorite. They often choose those priced between tens to hundreds of yuan. Even UN officials have bought our products as gifts," says shop owner Ji Fengguang.

But for some shopkeepers, the business has not been easy.

Lu Pin, a Beijing seal engraver who closed his art shop in Liulichang years ago, says that the government should do more to strengthen marketing of the art.

Located in downtown Beijing, Liulichang is famous for a series of traditional Chinese stone dwellings housing selling various craftwork and antiques. It is one of Beijing's traditional old quarters.

According to him, stores focuses on selling seals in that place are hard to survive. Engraved seals are always sold with other artworks like calligraphy.

"Very few people use seals in their daily life, except those calligraphers," says Lu, "For most people, seals are only novelty gifts without any practical value."

Liu says expensive seals made by precious stones and carved by famous artists are usually sold for thousands of yuan, which are not affordable for ordinary people. While those cheap ones are often poor qualities.

"The government should take actions to ensure the market's stability. For example, it can establish a special street to sell good quality seals at a proper price," says Lu.


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