On one of my trips to Shanghai I noticed a small shop across from my hotel that was just opening for the day. It looked interesting so I walked in. The shop was dimly lit, so it took my eyes a minute to adjust. It was an art supply store that sold paper, brushes, ink stones; the aisles were narrow and packed with every art supply imaginable. As I walked down a crowded aisle I noticed a small display case. Inside the case were a variety of chops (seals) that are still used in China for some business purposes, and artists still use them as signatures on their artwork. I had seen a collection of chops at the Forbidden City in Beijing; back in Chinese history emperors and high-level officials used their seals to authorize important documents.
The old man who ran the shop came over and asked in broken English if he could help me. I pointed at the chops and he proudly unlatched the display case and showed me his various blank chops, which appeared to be soapstone. After looking at all the choices and discussing prices, I told him I wished to purchase a customized name chop and some red ink that came in a round, porcelain container with a lid. The chop I chose had a unique Chinese lion carved on the top.
I explained to the shopkeeper that I needed to pick my chop up on my next trip to China. He said it was no problem as long as I paid him in full and assured me that the store had been in business since liberation so I needn't worry he wouldn't be there upon my return. When the engraver was finished carving it, he would keep it safely. He assured me I had nothing to worry about, and I believed him. I lettered my name on a piece of paper, paid him, said thanks, and headed out the door and across the street to the hotel to finish getting my things together for the long flight home to L.A.
On my next trip to China I returned to the small shop to retrieve my chop. “Glad back, USA,” the old man greeted me. He unlatched his display case and removed a small cloth-covered box held closed by a sliver of bone, and carefully handed it to me. While I was looking at it he got out another closed box and it set it on the counter.
“I show,” he declared, as he got out a small piece of clean white paper. I handed him the chop. “Pick up—lion face face,” he said as he opened the box on the counter, took the porcelain lid off the ink, and touched the chop lightly onto the top of the thick, red ink. “You rock easy, easy—that all.”
Indeed that’s all there is to using a chop. The only part I didn’t understand was the “lion face face,” until he lifted the chop and I saw that the characters on the paper were right side up and straight for reading, as they were on the back of the chop. When the lion was facing you, the chop was in the proper position. I realized that “lion face face” is a good way to remember how to hold a chop without looking underneath to see if you have it in the right orientation.
He had guaranteed me I had nothing to worry about and he was right—I loved my new chop. I put it and the ink back into their respective boxes, thanking him then heading out the door and across the street to the hotel to get some sleep before an early start to the shipyard the following morning.
This short story is included in No Problem, Mr. Walt. If you enjoyed it, there are many such tales in the book. When I think back on my many trips to Shanghai, I remember the old man saying, “…. lion face face," and when I use the chop my signature is always correct.