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Chinese Culture: Chinese Chops Or Seals
The Chinese chop or seal is used in China to sign documents, artwork, and other paperwork. The Chinese chop is most commonly made from stone, but can also be made in plastic, ivory, or metal.
There are three Mandarin Chinese names for the Chinese chop or seal. The seal is most commonly called 印鉴 (yìn jiàn) or 印章 (yìnzhāng). It is also sometimes called 图章 (tú zhāng).
The Chinese chop is used with a red paste called 朱砂 (zhūshā). The chop is pressed lightly into the 朱砂 (zhūshā) then the image is transferred to paper by applying pressure to the chop. There may be a soft surface beneath the paper to ensure a clean transfer of the image. The paste is kept in a covered jar when not in use to prevent it from drying out.
History of the Chinese Chop
Chops have been a part of Chinese culture for thousands of years. The earliest known seals date from the Shang Dynasty (商朝 - shāng cháo), which ruled from 1600 BC to 1046 BC. Chops became widely used during the Warring States period (战国时代 - Zhànguó Shídài) from 475 BC to 221 BC when they were used for signing official documents. By the time of the Han Dynasty (汉朝 - Hàn Cháo) of 206 BC to 220 AD, the chop was an essential part of Chinese culture.
During the history of the Chinese chop, Chinese characters have evolved. Some of the changes made to characters over the centuries have been related to the practice of carving seals. For example, during the Qin Dynasty (秦朝 - Qín Cháo - 221 to 206 BC), Chinese characters had a round shape. The need to carve them on a square chop led to the characters themselves taking on a square and even shape.
Uses For Chinese Chops
Chinese seals are used by individuals as signatures for many kinds of official documents, such as legal papers and bank transactions. Most of these seals simply bear the owners name and are called 姓名印 (xìngmíng yìn). There are also seals for less formal uses, such as signing personal letters. And there are seals for artworks, created by the artist and which add a further artistic dimension to the painting or calligraphic scroll.
Seals which are used for government documents usually bear the name of the office, rather than the name of the official.
Current Use of Chops
Chinese chops are still used for a wide variety of purposes in China. They are used as identification when signing for a parcel or registered mail or signing checks at the bank. Since seals are hard to forge and should only be accessible to the owner, they are accepted as proof of ID. Signatures are sometimes required along with the chop stamp, the two together being an almost failsafe method of identification.
Chops are also used for conducting business. Companies must have at least one chop for signing contracts and other legal documents. Large companies may have chops for each department. For example, the finance department may have its own chop for bank transactions, and the human resources department may have a chop for signing employee contracts.
Since chops have such an important legal significance, they are carefully managed. Businesses must have a system for controlling the use of chops, and will often require written information each time a chop is used. Managers must keep track of the location of chops and make a report each time a company chop is used.
Acquiring a Chop
If you are living in China, you will find it easier to conduct business if you have a Chinese name. Have a Chinese colleague help you select an appropriate name, then have a chop made. The cost ranges from about $5 to $100 depending on the size and the material of the chop.
Some people prefer to carve their own chops. Artists in particular often design and carve their own seals which are used on their artworks, but anyone with an artistic bent may enjoy creating their own seal.
Seals are also a popular souvenir which can be bought in many tourist areas. Often the vendor will provide a Chinese name or slogan along with the Western spelling of the name.

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