Chinese Seal Carving



katteballeje, via Flickr

How do you sign your name? Spotlight explores the history of seals and the art of seal carving in China.

Transcript


Voice 1  

Welcome to Spotlight. I’m Luke Haley.

Voice 2  

And I’m Katy Blake. Spotlight uses a special English method of broadcasting. It is easier for people to understand, no matter where in the world they live.

Voice 1 

The official stamps a red square on a piece of paper. In the square, there are white lines. The white lines create the picture of a dancing man. His body makes the Chinese character for “Jing”. This is the official seal for the Beijing Olympic Games.

Voice 2 

A seal is a small tool or device. This tool has a carved design on it. Officials use the seal to print a symbol on to a document. The seal shows who owns the document or who created it. In some countries, like China, seals are still an important symbol of authority. However, seals are more than just an official sign. Seals are also an art form. The symbols and characters in a seal can communicate ideas about right and wrong. The characters in a seal can communicate many things about culture, morals and values. Today’s Spotlight is on seals and their place in Chinese culture.

Voice 1 

Creating a seal is a form of art. First, an artist carefully paints on a small block. He paints pictures and Chinese characters. He uses a small brush, made of animal hair. Then he uses a small, sharp tool. He cuts and carves the images into the block. When he is done, he uses the block to stamp an image. He presses the carved block into a red paste. He has made the paste from plants. Then he presses the block onto paper. It leaves a red image on the document. This block is a seal.

Voice 2 

People have used seals in China for centuries. At first, only experts created seals, for official business. One of the most famous Chinese seals is the ancient Heirloom Seal. This seal was created around the year 200. The Emperor of China had a seal maker carve it from a famous piece of green, jade stone. It was 4 inches square. The royal family used the seal for centuries. The writing on the seal read,

Voice 4

 "For he who has received the Mandate from Heaven, long life and eternal glory."

Voice 1 

For hundreds of years, seals were used only by the rich for important business. But in the 14th century that changed. At that time, stone workers found a kind of soft stone. It was easier to cut and carve. People began to carve their own seals, instead of paying an expert. This change caused seals to become their own art form.

Voice 2 

At that time, there were three traditional Chinese arts: painting, poetry, and calligraphy. Calligraphy is the art of writing beautiful looking characters or words. These arts were mainly for rich or important people.

Voice 1 

Seal carving became the fourth art. The art of seal carving was based on the three other art forms. It used the beautiful writing of calligraphy. It used the beautiful pictures of painting. And it used the beautiful language and ideas of poetry.

Voice 2 

However, the 20th century brought many changes to China. Traditional arts were not as important. Children did not learn about them in school. And fewer people learned how to make them. Officials still used seals. But again, only experts carved the seals.

Voice 1 

Today, Chinese artists are bringing back the traditional art of seal making. One of the most important of these artists is Li Lanqing. Li Lanqing was born in 1932. He was a famous official in the Chinese government. From 1993 until 2003, he was the Vice Premier of the State Council of China. He was responsible for many parts of the government, including the economy, education, culture, sport, technology and science. After he retired, he concentrated on sharing and encouraging the art of seal carving.

Voice 2 

In a short film for the British Museum, Li said,

Voice 3  

“Seal carving is an ancient art. Like Chinese characters, seals have a long history. And seal carving is an art form based on writing. Chinese characters developed from images. They had an artistic expression built into them from the beginning.”

Voice 2 

Li has made seals for many years. In the film, he explained his process.

Voice 3  

“The idea for a seal starts in the brain. After your eyes have studied it, the brain tells you where to place the knife, and when it should stop. The process does not need to be thought through completely before starting.”

Voice 1 

Li Lanqing’s seals are unusual in the history of seal carving. He chooses words and ideas based on current issues. These inscriptions tell his own story, and the story of China. For example, one of his seals is called “Breaking Through”. One character pushes against another. It is like something new pushing against something old. “Breaking Through” is also the name of a book Li wrote about his life. In Li’s government positions, he led the way in encouraging international trade in China. The seal shows the struggle of new and old ideas.

Voice 2

Li believes cultural exchange is the language of the soul or spirit. And this affects his seal making. His art may be Chinese, but the influences on it are international. He has even created seals based on famous people from the West. He made one to honor the great musician Mozart. It almost looks like musical writing.

Voice 1 

Li has made many seals that represent his experiences of seal carving. One of his seals is:

My Heart Travels Beyond the Seal

Voice 1 

This seal shows characters breaking past the square border of the seal. They are long. The seal is limited, but a person’s heart is not limited. The characters on the seal also tell about a stone. This stone represents Li’s experience of seal making. Here are some other seals that talk about the artist, and the seal.

A stone speaks of one’s strong desires.

 A stone speaks of beauty.

 A stone declares one’s feelings.

Voice 1

Li Lanqing has done much to continue the ancient tradition of Chinese seal carving.  His work unites old and new. And he has introduced the art of Chinese seals to the world.

Voice 2 

Liu Xiaoming is the Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom. In a speech honoring Li and his seal carving, he said,

Voice 6 

“Mr. Li is a strong supporter of making seal carving popular. He has brought seal carving to the interest of all people. Many of these people are excited to find out how fascinating seal carving is. The growing popularity of seal carving is creating a bright future for this ancient treasure of China.”

Voice 1 

The writers of this program were Shelagh Godwin and Christy VanArragon. The producer was Nick Mangeolles. The voices you heard were from the United Kingdom and the United States. All quotes were adapted for this program and voiced by Spotlight. You can listen to this program again, and read it, on the internet at www.radioenglish.net. This program is called, ‘Chinese Seal Carving’.

Voice 2 

We hope you can join us again for the next Spotlight program. Goodbye.

Question:

What art forms are traditional in your culture? Do you think it is important to protect traditional art and culture?

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