Everyone brings home souvenirs from their travels: postcards, toys, pictures, clothing, folk art, etc. A chop from China makes a special souvenir since it bears the owner’s name. Travelers to China will likely find no one else in the neighborhood has a chop.
And chops are so Chinese. Documents and artwork are not considered official in China until they’ve been “signed” with a person’s seal. This engraved seal, or “chop,” is unique to each person.
Chops date back to ancient times in China. They’re used on every document imaginable. Artists use them on paintings instead of handwritten signatures. While important documents are signed by hand today in China, they’re not considered official until the red seals have been affixed.
A Chop Is Like a Rubber Stamp
Think of the chop as a rubber stamp. Only instead of rubber put to a cloth stamp pad, think of a stone engraving being dipped into a pot of gooey red glue. Then both are “stamped” on a piece of paper. Same result, just a different way to achieve it.
Because the chop is a person’s “signature” for life, the Chinese give much thought as to what characters they will have engraved on their chop.
Visitors to China don’t have to worry about that. They can just have their first or last names translated into characters put on their chops. Chop makers almost always have books of first names translated into Chinese characters available for shoppers to look through. Travelers can also pick out their Chinese names online before they leave home. Mandarin Tools allows users to enter their first and last names, and indicate what characteristic they’d like their name to represent. A few seconds later, up pops the name translated into Chinese. This page should be printed out to show to the chop maker in China.
Chops Widely Available in China
Chops are widely available in China, from department stores to flea markets to tourist attractions. They come in all sizes and shapes. Chops start at a couple of dollars, then go up in price depending on the size of the chop and what it represents. For example, a chop representing a Terra Cotta Warrior makes a good souvenir to remember Xi’an by. Some chops depict an animal in the Chinese zodiac; others, a pretty woman in traditional garb.
Shoppers who get chops outside of a department store like Beijing’s Friendship Store, should be sure to bargain for the best price.
Chops are usually made of soapstone, and always hand-engraved. It only takes an experienced chop maker a few minutes to do the engraving. Watching them put a complex character on a small surface is fun.
Use Care with the Red Paste
Chops usually come with a small pot of very thick red ink. It has the consistency of paste, and is sometimes made from cinnabar. Be careful using this ink, as it stains absorbent materials and can be difficult to remove. Wipe the chop with a tissue after using it to get the remaining red ink out of the engraved areas. A tissue moistened with nail polish remover works well on stubborn stains.