the souvenirs from China

Everyone brings home souvenirs from their travels: postcards, toys, pictures, clothing, folk art such as papercuts, 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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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.

As the souvenirs, the papercutting from China is special too. It’s the ancitient traditional Chinese folk arts. The Chinese invented paper around the first century A.D., so it was only natural for them to come up with ways to creatively use this invention. Chinese historians generally agree that the art of papercutting didn’t surface until about the sixth century. Since paper was still very expensive, only the rich could afford paper for decorations, writes Nigel Cameron in The History of the Chinese Papercut for China Now magazine.

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Papercuts are made by cutting very thin paper with a scissors or knife. Papercuts are very fragile and tear easily. Red paper is traditionally used to make papercuts, though more modern subjects will be done in the colors of the rainbow. Sharp-pointed scissors and knives are used to cut the paper, usually several sheets at a time. Beginners usually work from a pattern, but more experienced cutters work in freehand, according to the Beijing newspaper People’s Daily.

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Traditional subjects are Peking Opera masks, animals in the Chinese Zodiac, flowers and maidens wearing traditional garb. More modern subjects are pandas and those catering to Western influences such as Santa Claus, rodeos and Disney characters.

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Papercuts come in all sizes, from the usual 3” x 5” to several feet high. Papercuts are usually used as window decorations, especially around holidays, much like Westerners put up Christmas lights. They’re also used on Chinese lanterns and doorways. Many Chinese frame the larger papercuts. Sometimes papercuts are used as patterns for embroidery or lacquer work.

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Travelers can find many uses for the papercuts when they return home. They make excellent gifts for anyone who has asked the traveler to bring them something from China. Many travelers frame a series of small papercuts and then make a wall arrangement with them. Creative types who make their own greeting cards will find them very handy. For example, Christmas-themed papercuts can be used on holiday cards; use double-sided tape to stick them to the card stock. Papercuts can also be used in decoupage projects.

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