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Seal of approval


Zhao Yuanqiang presents one of his workmanship created five years ago. The seal is made of Balin stone.

Zhao Yuanqiang is a slight and humble man who prefers to be known simply as, "Yin Nong" - a Chinese expression for a farmer who occupies himself carving seals. The 43-year-old is regarded as one of China`s most influential seal engraving masters, and is the holder of two Guinness World Records.

In 1995, Zhao finished the largest engraved seal in the world, weighing 2,600kg. It is a white marble seal bearing eight Chinese characters and four ancient auspicious symbols: Yuan Heng Li Zhen. The four characters mean honesty, courtesy, purity and righteousness. Standing together, they represent the motto of living with principle. These characters are placed in a circle, because ancient people believed heaven was round.

Another four characters, Jim Zhou Yong Tai, represent a good wish for people`s happiness and a prosperous country. They were placed on the seal in a square, indicating the ancient concept that the earth was square. Four ancient auspicious symbols "black dragon", "white tiger", "red peacock", and "black warrior" lie around the edge of the seal, which are thought to protect people against evils and misery.

Zhao was born in Wenshang County, Shandong Province, not far from the hometown of the great Chinese philosopher Confucius. Zhao inherited gifts in poetry, painting and seal carving from his grandfather, Zhao Zipei, a famous calligrapher and well-known doctor.

"My father joined the army during the Liberation War, so he couldn`t learn the art of carving. Instead, I inherited the techniques from my grandfather," Zhao said. As an introverted child, Zhao found emotional expression through painting. "I became attached to the seal straight away, and was inspired to keep carving.

"I was first taught calligraphy at age 7 under my grandfather`s instruction, and I also learned Chinese painting and poetry from him," Zhao said.

Zhao recalls writing letters to his grandfather, aiming to show off his attainment of the classical Chinese expressions he was learning. Every time, his grandfather would write back, correcting each of the errors the young boy had made.

"When I was a beginner, I didn`t understand why the seals should be designed so small on the painting or calligraphy. It was not fair to place them at the corner. People can stand back and appreciate the calligraphy works, but have to get as close as pressing their noses against it to see clearly the name of the artist."

Under his grandfather`s tutelage. Zhao read abundant historical books and gradually found out the intention and meaning that were carried in the seals, which sometimes appeared as small as a thumbnail. He went on to create unique seals bearing his own characteristics.

One such work, produced in 1994, earned him a second place in the Guinness Book of Records. A giant combined seal called Sleeping Buddha, it contained 400 seals, each bearing part of a complete Buddhist scripture of Sakyamuni, the founder of Buddhism. They were stamped a total of 5,000 times on a sheet of paper and pieced together to form a work measuring 6m long by 1.9m high.

The work appears different when observed from various angles. Up close, it becomes many red Chinese characters with a complete Buddhist scripture, but from a distance, a giant great sleeping Buddhist emerges.

Traditional Chinese painting is a harmonious combination of the arts of painting, calligraphy and engraving skill. It features Chinese characters arranged in imaginative patterns in a very limited space. A master seal engraver must be able to write different styles of the Chinese scripts and arrange all the characters in perfect balance. A master calligrapher sometimes needs to exaggerate the thickness or thinness of a stroke, elaborately straighten or curve it, or even deliberately deform an ideogram to create an artistic effect.

"A perfect seal is very much determined by the engraver`s speed and strength of his wrist and finger movements," Zhao said. "As well as the particular tool he uses, he should be very familiar with the various materials-jade, gold, brass, stone, wood and so on-so that he can apply his tool with the right exertion and rhythm."

Every time Zhao carries out an important engraving work, he travels to other provinces to select the best stones. Most valuable for engravers is a kind of stone that emperors of the Qing Dynasty used to put a piece of this on the table for wealth and good luck when they held ceremonies to worship heaven.

Two months ago, as a member of a Chinese folk art delegation, Zhao went to Russia to attend a Year of China event, bringing his artistic seals and best wishes to the Russians. Since 1992, Zhao has written several textbooks, such as Basis of Engraving, 18 courses on Preliminary Seal Carving and Art of Chinese Seal Engraving.

He said he would not have been able to cultivate the peace needed to create fine works were it not for the support of his wife, who understands the painstaking work requires long hours, and a quiet environment.

"I always feel grateful to my wife," he said. "She has gone through hard times with me. Sometimes I worked so long that my wife would stalk in to bring me some food of drink.

"That could easily annoy me, so I lost my temper and yelled at her. Only after I finished the work at hand did I realize what I`d done to her."



Seals with stone animals on the top are said to have the effect to avoid bad luck.

Date:2007-10-31 8:09:30     
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