Some foreigners have at one point in their life said a variation of the following: “China would cease to function without red stamps.” That would be a reference to the red circle and star you would see on any official document, contract, or even bank paperwork and receipts. Here is an example a little close to home for me. Lets say you take a job teaching at a Chinese college. You sign your new contract, but the contract is not actually valid until it gets a red stamp from an very important person — usually a vice president or another type of administrator.
Whether the joke is actually funny or true or not is best left for another time. There is a broader issue to consider. Red stamps on official documents are not entirely a new thing in China. Actually, it is a very old part of the culture dating back thousands of years. Imperial officers used them all the time, and they usually stamped in red ink. The first Qin emperor — the guy buried with the Terracotta Warriors — had one created that became an heirloom passed down through generations.
The craft of carving and creating these stamps is an art often closely related to calligraphy. It survives in Chinese culture to this day. However, seal cutting is much harder than calligraphy. A Chinese friend once told me that “all cutters are good calligraphers, but being a good calligrapher doesn’t guarantee the skills needed for carving.” Engraving the characters requires a strong but delicate hand. Also, all the Chinese characters must be cut in reverse. This is to ensure the character looks right once ink is applied and the stamp is put to paper. This requires the artist to practically know how to write mirror, backward images of hundreds of Chinese characters.
Seal carving extends beyond just making square or rectangular red stamps. Some of it functions a little closer to calligraphy by stringing characters together into a sentence or a proverb. As a rule, red is always used for official business. Stamps in black ink and other colors are for personal use. Examples of this can be seen in the Changzhou Museum in Xinbei. This month, an exhibit opened showcasing the work of Jiang Xuelian 将雪莲. But the stone seals and the red and black stamps themselves are on display in glass cases. Some of Jiang’s regular calligraphy is also being exhibited.
Something else should be noted. Calligraphy is an art that some foreigners may have a hard time appreciating. There really is no cultural equivalent in the West. Seal cutting, on the other hand, might be easier for westerner to comprehend. Printmaking — whether by using woodblocks, zinc plates, or linoleum sheets — does have a long artistic heritage in the west. And seal cutting is a Chinese form of printmaking.