Despite the omnipresence of computer keyboards today and the reluctance of most people to write anything by hand, there are still those with the passion for drawing Chinese characters with pens, brushes, or even knives. How do you draw characters with a knife you may ask? Actually it is a unique Chinese art form, known as seal cutting, and one of the three major traditional Chinese art forms that also include calligraphy and painting.
To appreciate the art of seal cutting, you need to have some knowledge of the culture of seals in China. In a Chinese painting or calligraphic work, you will find a red seal print, small and normally square, bearing the name of the painter or calligrapher and used as proof of the authenticity of the work. The seal prints represent an important part of Chinese history, traditional art and culture.
Chinese seals are made of hard materials (like stone or marble) with its content cut in a form of ancient Chinese characters, such as xiao zhuan, mainly used in Qin Dynasty (B.C. 221-B.C. 206). The essence of seal carving is to enhance the beauty of Chinese characters with the skill of cutting or engraving. It is said that Chinese seals are the precursor of printing, one of the country's four biggest inventions.
The history of using seals can be traced back to the Warring States Period (B.C. 403-B.C. 221). The majority of seals during that time were made of bronze, while jade was used in the imperial families. Initially, all seals were cut by special craftsmen and were made only for practical use in daily life and official work. Mainly names or official titles were carved on the seals to prove the identities of the seal owners.
But later, after several dynasties of development, some painters began to cut seals on stones by themselves. Besides cutting their names on stones, they also cut poems or mottos onto stone seals to express their feelings about creating the painting, or the completion date of the work. This gradually developed in stone seal cutting, evolving into a major art form in China.
The most important things about creating a seal are to carefully design the characters that you want to cut and to be skilled in the use of carving tools.
To add the value to the seal, artists generally will carve exquisite sculptures on the top and bas-relief on the sides of seal bodies, which are usually cuboid in shape. When a seal is finished, it is pressed onto an inkpad soaked with vermilion ink, and then used to stamp the work of art.
Shoushan stone is considered to be the best material for seal carving. Found in South China's Fujian Province, the stone is called the "national stone" of China. With a mild hardness and soft natural colors, the stone has been favored by generations of Chinese seal engravers.
The beauty of the combination of the seal engraving art and the Shoushan stone was manifested in a recent large-scale seal cutting exhibition held at the China Millenium Monument in Beijing in mid-April this year. The exhibition presented over 500 seal cutting works created by contemporary Chinese seal cutting artists.
Visitors got the chance to appreciate the works of some seal cutting masters in modern China, such as Qi Baishi and Wu Changshuo, who use Shoushan stone for their masterpieces. Items from international and local collectors were also on display.
What is unprecedented is that the exhibition invited 100 outstanding seal engravers in China in different age groups to carve the contents of two Chinese classics--The Confucian Analects and Tao Te Ching--with the material of the Shoushan stone. It's a perfect combination of traditional Chinese culture and this unique art form that has lasted over 2,000 years.
"All the items shown at the exhibition embody the highest level of China's seal cutting art today," said Luo Pengpeng, one of China's leading seal cutting artists and Deputy Director of the Academy of Seal Cutting Art of China, the organizer of the exhibition.
According to Luo, exhibition planner, the idea was to show traditional Chinese culture and art through the organic combination of all these cultural elements. She said that the exhibition was greatly supported by artists and collectors, and all the priceless artworks on the show were provided free of charge.
The exhibition proved a big hit not only with artists but also with ordinary people who are interested in traditional Chinese art.
Li Fengchuan, a visitor from north China's Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region, brought his daughter to visit the show. "I want my child to know more about traditional Chinese culture and art," he told Beijing Review.
He also hopes that this kind of high-quality art exhibition can be held more often in the future, allowing the general public to get reacquainted with such cultural heritage.
According to Luo, the exhibition will be held in Japan in May, as the first leg of an overseas tour.
But compared with its high artistic and cultural value, the seal cutting art is still an art form mastered by a small group of scholars and artists and has not been popularized among the public to the extent of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Most Chinese do not know where to learn the art.
The major reason for this is that seal cutting has not been an independent subject of the arts in China's education for some time, which has directly limited its popularity and continuance, said Luo. Even now, the study of seal cutting is still subordinate to the department of calligraphy or the department of Chinese painting in some art schools, she said. But she added that things are changing.
"I would say that the art of seal cutting has entered its best development period since the foundation of the People's Republic of China in 1949," Luo told Beijing Review.
In her view, with the enhancement of China's economic strength and the improvement of its people's living standard, Chinese traditional culture is now of increasing interest in China and the rest of the world, which directly boosts the development of the seal cutting art.
The 2008 Beijing Olympic Games has no doubt escalated this trend, said Luo. The image of a Chinese seal has been chosen as the emblem of the Beijing Olympics, which has greatly intensified the status of the art in the hearts of Chinese people, she said.
Carving Out a Career
Making her first seal at the age of seven, Luo Pengpeng is one of the few outstanding female seal cutting artists in China. In 1980, she became one of the seal cutters of Rong Bao Zhai, a prestigious traditional art gallery with a history of 300 years. This was the start of her carving career. In the past 28 years, Luo has created more than 10,000 seal cutting works, most of which have been exhibited in various seal cutting exhibitions in China and other countries. Her seals feature a combination of traditional style and contemporary living.
Besides artistic creations, Luo has devoted the majority of her time and energy to the passing on and popularity of the seal cutting art. Her dream is to establish an independent subject on seal cutting art in China as soon as possible.
In 2006, she founded the Academy of Seal Cutting Art of China, which is the first high-level seal cutting art research institute in China. In 2007, the academy enrolled its first student as a seal cutting major for a master's degree, also the first postgraduate studying the seal cutting art in China. As the tutor of the student, Luo became the first postgraduate tutor in the art of seal cutting. Besides the postgraduate, Luo also teaches students of different ages.
Proposing that the basic knowledge of seal cutting needs to be taught in middle school education, Luo thinks that the popularity of the art is a systematic project and the priority should be expanding the scale of the master's degree education in the subject. In the past years, she led Chinese art delegations to visit other countries, hoping to popularize Chinese seal cutting art overseas. Apart from this, she gives lectures on seal cutting in universities and on TV, while still finding time to publish several books on the art, which has helped many young art lovers.
Luo said her academy would continue to hold seal cutting exhibitions or seminars, expanding the influence of the art among the people. The next step, under her direct leadership, is for the academy to compile a book on the whole development history of the Chinese seal cutting art, which will be the first history book of the art in China.