Make your mark

Updated: 2013-03-01 09:18

By Wang Chao (China Daily)

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 Make your mark

Top: Handmade paste is mashed using ingredients which often include pearl and herbs. Left: Zhangzhou seal paste ingredients include herbs and spices. Photos Provided to China Daily

Make your mark

Chinese seals and paste are both an ancient tradition and a part of modern China, used routinely by some of China's important institutions

The use of seals stretches back thousands of years in China and yet remains an integral part of modern society, used today by government, the banking industry and artists. There has even been a resurgence in the craft in recent times, along with a general rise of interest in history and traditional culture.

In Chinese water painting and calligraphy, a seal bearing the name, or nickname, of the artist is now an indispensable part of the artwork. Sometimes two seals are used - one indicating the name of the artist and another expressing his or her emotions.

Just like a signature, the words, which are usually carved into stone, are unique to the individual.

Like the Western wax seal, Chinese seals were invented to suggest the identity of the sender of a document. As important as the seal itself is the paste used to create a mark, which is made of a thick mixture of cinnabar color, oil and other ingredients. This gives the seal its consistency and color.

Today, seals that belonged to important figures, or documents bearing their seal mark, can sell for large sums of money.

In 2007, a seal belonging to Emperor Qianlong, auctioned by Sotheby's in Hong Kong, was bought by an anonymous buyer for HK$46 million (now $6 million; 4.5 million euros), making it one of the most valuable objects on sale that day.

The history of seal paste goes back about 2,000 years. The first seal paste was made from mud and used to block the end of bamboo slip rolls, preventing people from looking inside without breaking the seal.

Following the invention of paper in the Han Dynasty (AD 25-220), and more so once good quality paper became widely used in the Sui Dynasty (AD 581-618), mud was abandoned in favor of a mixture of cinnabar, oil, herbs and borneol, which created a red paste.

But why cinnabar, and why red? There is no definite answer to this question, but it is commonly believed that the answer lies in prehistoric cave art, which used cinnabar. It is possible that ancient man used cinnabar because it lasted and that this tradition was maintained throughout the generations.

At one time seal paste was categorized among the most important possessions of Chinese scholars, alongside ink, paper, brush pens and inkstands.

Artists have compared it to a woman's coat: while the seal is beautifully designed, it needs a refined coat to bring out its true beauty.

There are several kinds of seal paste in China, with differing ingredients. Among the most popular are zhusha and zhubiao. Zhusha is a deep sedate red color, while zhubiao has a lively yellowish hue.

Today, seals are widely used throughout China, but quality in terms of both paste and design differs considerably. Good seal paste can remain bright for centuries, but inferior paste decays with time. In government and banks, seals are often used in place of signatures and most available pastes are aimed at this market. They are mass-produced and fade with time. Artists usually use handmade paste, which is of a higher quality and reveals greater nuances of detail from the surface of the seal.

Handmade paste is mashed using a mortar, and besides the usual ingredients often includes other elements such as pearl and herbs.

The vast majority of seal pastes are red, but brown and dark green are occasionally used with paintings or in calligraphy on colored paper or silk.

There are three main traditional centers for seal paste making in China: Xiling Engravers Society in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province; Rongbaozhai in Beijing; and Babao Workshop in Zhangzhou, Fujian province.

In Zhangzhou, the local seal paste, together with the daffodil and a herbal medicine called pientzehuang, are referred to as "the three precious treasures in Zhangzhou". The paste's ingredients include pearl, gold, coral, borneol and cinnabar.

The oil and cinnabar gives color to the seal paste, while the borneol prevents decay and gives it fragrance. In Zhangzhou, gold foil is also added to create a shimmering effect in the paste.

Other ingredients of the Zhangzhou paste and the process of making it are a guarded secret and are listed as part of the province's cultural heritage.

Yang Xiwei is president of the Zhangzhou workshop and inheritor of the secret paste-making skills. His workshop has 20 staff and because only he knows the whole process of making the paste, he buys the ingredients and does the mixing.

Babao seal paste was first made during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) and became the paste of royalty. The paste, which remains popular in Japan and Southeast Asia, was so valuable in ancient China that it could be traded with gold of the same quantity.

Today it is a popular souvenir in Zhangzhou, and Yang caters to the tourist market with a series of zodiac-inspired paste containers.

"The seal paste is a precious legacy, and we are working on the packaging to make it a precious gift as well, " he says.

Expect for souvenirs and artists, few people buy handmade paste today. Even though it is among the most renowned paste making centers in China, Babao sells only about 3 million yuan ($480,000; 368,000 euros) worth of products a year.

That said, this ancient craft remains alive and well, and is even growing in popularity. And with its place in some of China's most important institutions, it is likely to remain both a tradition and a part of modern life for decades to come.

(China Daily 03/01/2013 page26)