Chinese Seal. Picture taken at the Shanghai Bowuguan (Shanghai Museum)

…or no, actually, sealed with a seal. Most likely one of the most popular souvenirs, next to fans, calligraphy scrolls, waving-Mao watches, and pirated DVD’s with Chinglish descriptions, Chinese seals (印鉴 yìnjiàn or 印章 yìnzhāng) are essentially name stamps, often indicating a personal name, office, or studio, used by artists, officials, and writers to sign any piece of writing, document, or artwork. They fulfill the function of a signature, finger print, or modern day e-signature, but are, in my opinion, aesthetically much more pleasing. And while in the West seals are often associated with medieval times and fancy rings (or cute baby animals, but that’s not the point), Chinese seals are usually made out of stone, jade, or even wood, and range in shape from rectangles and squares, to crazy elaborate forms. They come in two general types: zhūwén 朱文(red characters) and báiwén 白文 (white characters). In red character seals (for example the stamp at the top left of the photograph) the area surrounding the characters is carved out, allowing the characters themselves to get covered with seal paste (ink) and leave an imprint. White character seals are the exact opposite (top right). The characters themselves are carved out, and the seal paste covers the surrounding areas, leaving the characters blank when a print is made. The seal used to make the prints in the photograph above is not your average stamp, as it has no less than 6 sides (top, bottom, and the four sides), each carved in a different style. Reading seal script is an art in and of itself, as the characters are highly stylized, depending on the carving techniques, materials used, and time era. You can still buy seals in China at street corners or (tourist) markets, carved to order with your name (or an impromptu phonetic transliteration of your name, if you don’t have a Chinese name at hand). But in today’s technologically advanced world, you don’t have to go far, and creating a (digital) seal is easier than ever. At the website Chinese tools you can generate your own seal in a matter of minutes, simply entering the characters you want included, selecting the size, style, and direction, and you’re set to go!

The first time I visited China, I didn’t speak any Chinese, and did not have a Chinese name. I was traveling with a group, and happened to celebrate my 18th birthday in China. My group-mates were kind enough to present me with my very own seal, which I have saved all these years. Since i started studying Chinese, however, my Chinese name is no longer the same as the one the street carver used all those years ago (the many j’s may have thrown him off, as it does many people), so I generated a new stamp using the link above, and voila, see here the result:

My Chinese name is only three characters long, 柯悠伦, Ke Youlun, (reading direction = top right, bottom right, bottom left) so the seal generator fills up the empty space with “traditional seal characters.” In this case, the top left character reads 印 yìn, the Chinese word for seal (often used in traditional seals).

So if you’re looking for a new and somewhat eccentric email signature, or a fun activity to do with your class or friends, click here to go the seal generator tool.