Chop Marks are the common English name for a very old Chinese practice of signing documents or indicating ownership. The principal is similar to the signet ring, unique to an individual. As in the signet ring, a unique engraving imprints a highly personal signature.
In Chinese tradition the “chops” are carved in a variety of materials, with the carving displaying text made up of the Chinese writing form sometimes described as “characters.”
The chop may itself be an art object. It prints on a surface using ink, or more traditionally a red paste. The system dates back three thousand years.
It is most readily seen on traditional Chinese paintings, like landscapes painted in ink on silk. Such a painting will have the artist’s chop, his (more rarely, hers) signature. An old painting may have twenty or more chop marks. This does not deface the painting. In fact, it may add a great deal of value.
A previous mark may be from an Emperor who owned the work, or from a famous painter or philosopher. The accumulation of chop marks forms a kind of history of who owned the painting in previous centuries. It connects the current owner with the deep history of China, one that in the painting may connect people across twenty centuries.
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