Curious Curator: Chinese Chops

One of my volunteers brought this artefact to my full attention one Wednesday afternoon in the Library. For years, these Asian marble pieces have sat on the book shelves, propping up sets of books, becoming makeshift book stops. Parkwood staff have often marvelled at how heavy they are and their intricate detailing and calligraphy, but that is where my inquisitiveness ended. I had always wondered if these pieces were part of the 1920s Caucasian love affair of everything “Asian” and “exotically eastern” and were picked up to add to the decorative flavour that many of the rooms boast.  However, it was a visitor on tour, who lives in Hong Kong who asked volunteer Karen, “is that Mr. McLaughlin’s Chinese Chop?” After the tour, Karen asked me, and I had no idea what a Chinese chop was, learning it to be a colloquial term for seal, and according to Wikipedia; ” seal, in an East Asian context, is a general name for printing stamps and impressions thereof which are used in lieu of signatures in personal documents, office paperwork, contracts, art, or any item requiring acknowledgement or authorship.”  Of course, reading this, we went into the Library, grabbed the chops, there is a pair, and looked at the bottom of them. 

The first thing I did was turn to social media and asked our Facebook audience about the characters on the seals. That resource failed in this quest, so I turned to the East Asian studies departments at Toronto area universities. That resource also didn’t work, but then again, it is all about who you know. Parkwood has a member in our extended family who studied in Asia and who teaches at York University, Jeff. It also turns out that Jeff is a former classmate of mine from a History of Southeast Asia class, and we shared professor contacts. Jeff was able to look at the chops, and decipher quite a bit of the info before, referring to a colleague,  Ms. Sarah Zhuo at the University of Macau. Ms. Zhao confirmed the details of the chop with Professor Xuechao Chen, retired professor from Shanxi Normal University in Xi’an. Professor Chen was able to confirm with Jeff that the translation was correct. The translation and information about the Chinese chops:

Inscription on the two seals is 金文后期 or Late Jin dynasty Bronzeware script, using an Imperial seal style 印璽體.

(Bronze script is a style of inscription used on ancient bronze ding tripods in the Shang, Xia and Zhou Dynasties, c. 1600-256 BCE.) 

The carved inscription is done very skillfully using a smooth and even, yet powerful stroke, and seems to be done by a master of the antique style. The characters are laid out symmetrically, evenly spaced and without any obvious gaps between them. This all makes the inscription one of very high grade and the seal one of very high quality. The third character of the first inscription 則 has a variation, using the 斤 (cattie) radical instead of the 刀 (knife).

 

 

The bottom of the first seal references the Confucian Analects Book VII Part 1 (孔夫子論語: 述而第七 第一部份): “To serve when called, to withdraw when not.”

This inscription references the retirement of an official from public life. “Acceptance of retirement from office, absolute acquiescence in it, even warm welcome of it and refusal to accept even the most exalted official station were warmly commended” (Dawson, 2013). This could be an allusion to great men knowing when to lead and also knowing when to retire—not hungering after power, but being content after serving.

 

The bottom of the second seal is inscribed with two characters meaning ‘peace’ or being ‘safe and sound’ (平安). The other two characters mean official seal (印信). This would be a wish of peace at the end of a letter, something similar to saying ‘best regards’ or less formally, ‘take care’. It’s a common closing to a letter.

From what I observed of the terminals, they are Chinese stone lions, also known as Foo Dogs. They are both female and surrounded with cubs. (The male lion often has his paw on a ball.) The lion is a seal of a Chinese scholar-official and similar to the symbolic stone statues that were commonly found outside the homes of government officials during the dynastic period.

Together the seals might be considered a gift of “best wishes” or “happy retirement” to someone. The scholar-official terminals would be meant for someone to display in an office, similar to the way a cigar box or pens might be given in the west. The side inscriptions are not legible at this point, but may contain a poem or dedication and are worth further research.

 

I still do not know how the Chinese chops arrived at Parkwood and why, but we are able to understand a little more about this artefact that sits on a shelf among the Library books.

 

References

Dawson, Miles Menander. (2013). pp. 240-1. The Conduct of Life: The Ethics of Confucius. London: Forgotten Books. (Original work published pre-1945, year unknown)

Legge, J. (1861). The Chinese Classics: Vol. 1: Confucian analects, the Great learning, and the doctrine of the mean (Vol. 1).

Lyall, L. A. (1910). The Sayings of Confucius.