Chop it to make it legal

Do you know what a ‘chop’ is in China?  (hint: it is NOT a cut of meat).                                   It is a  carved seal bearing the name of the individual, company, Provincial government, government department etc.

Chops have been used for thousands of years to give legal ‘signature’ to documents, affidavits, proclamations and so forth.  The earliest use of chops was in the Shang Dynasty ( 1600-1046 BC).  Over the centuries their use became more and more widespread, and now they are an essential aspect of Chinese culture.

The Chinese do not call chops ‘chops’ and unless they speak English they will look blankly at you if you use that term.  What we call a chop they call yinzhang  印章 . We take the word ‘chop’ from the Hindi term ‘chapa’ or the Malay term ‘cap’ both of which mean ‘stamp’ or rubber stamp, and we (British) probably started using the term during the time of the British Raj and it has stuck.

If you have ever seen any Chinese paintings, you may have noticed a smallish red square imprint to one side of the painting/print – that is the artist’s chop.

Artist's chop 1

Calligrapher affixing his chop to a piece of work

The chop is used by  pressing it into an ink pad – traditionally a shallow dish with a cake of cinnebar powder mixed with either pulverised silk or castor oil and moxa punk to make a sticky red substance known as zhusha 朱砂 -and then pressing it onto the document.

Cinnebar paste Chops can be very large – when it is a Provinicial government or multi-national company chop for instance – or relatively small, and they can be made of stone, bamboo, ivory (in the past) or metal though nowadays some of the chops used in shops and other commercial enterprises are made from rubber or plastic.

Chops for sale 2

Blank chops for sale

The price for a blank chop ranges from many thousands of kuai down to a modest amount. There are many specialist shops which sell a huge range of blank chops,

Chops for saleand once you have made your selection you take it to a ‘chop carver’ who will carve your name onto the stamp end of the chop.

Chop carver Some people like to choose chops decorated with the animal of their birth year according to the Chinese zodiac, others like an intricate pattern of flowers or birds, some prefer them plain,  each to their own aesthetic preference.

Choosing chop style 2The chop carver will show you a sheet with all the different character carving styles for you to choose from, and you will have to decide whether you want your chop to have a ‘positive’ or ‘negative’ imprint – ie whether the characters should stand out in red on a white background or white characters on a red background (my choice).

Chop carver It is as well to be guided by the carver as he will have experience as to what will look best with your characters and the shape of the blank chop you have chosen.

Businesses in China have never worked with any single individual having the power to sign documents on behalf of the company.  Agreements are usually between companies and not between individuals.  Therefore any document must have the company chop affixed to it to make it legal, and the company chop is usually kept securely under lock and key to prevent internal fraud, or the chop falling into the wrong hands.

Everyday chops There is another way that chopping business documents prevents fraud. When an agreement, minutes of a meeting, or other legally binding document consists of several pages  these are fanned out and the chop is stamped in such a way that each page carries part of its impression. This makes it impossible for anyone to insert other pages at a later stage and claim that they were part of the original.  Even the most mundane of invoices and receipts must be chopped . So if someone out here says ‘has it been chopped?‘ they mean ‘has the deal been legally signed’.

A year or two ago I was talking to a friend who was, in his teenage years, a member of the Red Guards. In 1976 when Mao Zedong died, he and his comrades refused to believe the news until they went to their local city hall and saw the official announcement complete with the Chinese Government chop.  ‘When we saw the chop‘ he told me ‘we knew it was true.’

I have no less than two chops of my own, inscribed with my Chinese name (Mai Zhe Ying)

My chop  – but only ever use them to mark books I have bought, or sometimes when sending a Birthday card to someone back home because they are always intrigued by it. Chops make a wonderful gift to take back to friends in the west;  and tourists in China are often persuaded to purchase a chop with their own name carved on it as a souvenir.



About herschelian

Started my 60s by moving to China with my DH. Surprised to find I am still here in Beijing eight years later - still finding it an adventure!
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8 Responses to Chop it to make it legal

  1. tvkapherr says:

    Fascinating. I would be curious if the chop influenced European culture when the creation of the family crest or seal came about. My family goes back to the 14 century in Germany and I am a tilted Baron. I have the family seal and a seal ring that I wear on special occasions.

  2. herschelian says:

    Hi tvkapherr – thanks for checking out my blog! To answer your question, I am no expert but I don’t think the Chinese chops and the European family ‘seals’ with seal rings are connected. However I do think they follow similar functions. Old British families also had a family crest which was often engraved on a ring which could be pressed into a hot-wax seal in order to verify a document. You are fortunate to still have a family seal ring – keep it safe!! This is living history and so important.

  3. I was unaware of chops. I find it amazing that certain ‘norms’ so prevalent in some societies are unfamiliar in others. That is the beauty that is blogging. Blogging makes it so much more intimate than just researching online… thank you for the cultural ‘chops’ education and great pics. The colors are just spectacular.

  4. This is an intriguing read. I had no idea that ‘chops’ are so important and prevalent. It would feel exotic to have one. 🙂

    • herschelian says:

      Well, you are coming to China with your friend and there is absolutely no reason why you should not get a chop for yourself!
      The whole process does not take long. Ask the agent with whom you are travelling to organise it for you. Or, if you are going to be in
      Beijing for a day or two I could assist.

  5. Lee Rodwell says:

    Another fascinating post – I have rediscovered your blog now that I have more time on my hands to spend exploring the blogosphere.

  6. herschelian says:

    This week in Scotland, my DH and I went back to our solicitors (lawyers) to sign our newly amended Wills. The document was simple, a mere six pages. We had to sign every single page and then on the last page our signatures were witnessed as we signed. How much easier it would have been to have the first five pages fanned out and chopped and then only the final page would have needed a signature! As ever, China had thought out a fool-proof method of preventing legal fraud, centuries before we westerners!

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