Sealing The Deal

14 November 2016

The craft of seal engraving is a cornerstone of Chinese fine arts. Tucked in a little corner in Jalan Tun Tan Cheng Lock, Melaka, Tham Ze-King has been engraving seals for more than 15 years. We explore the historical processes and cultural significance of the dying trade

Upon entering King’s Seal Engravings, you’d find wooden cabinets used to store various stones and apparatus, laying there waiting to be carved into an unbreakable insignia. Tham Ze-King, the owner of the humble shop sits behind the counter, and with his steady hands begins to carve each intricate character with a chisel, or a knife onto stone.

As an instrument of calligraphy and painting, the seal is a work of art in itself. It expresses an entire culture's ideas about humankind and nature. For Ze-King, his love for the art form sparked when he first saw them in his father’s art book collection as a child.

“My dad sponsored to buy the first ancient seal script dictionary and the materials for me to start learning this art in depth, and I continued to learn new things until today,” says Ze-King.

In ancient times, only the ranking secretary or military officers in the dynasty would own a seal. Their intended purpose was to seal off documents with mud wax onto the tied up bamboo scroll, and if the seals are broken, it would prove that the documents were breached. Today, the seals are used not so much an expression of power but of identity, where customers would purchase a seal out of nostalgia or a desire to preserve a semblance of their cultural identity.

Each and every hand-carved seal is unique and customised to Ze-King’s clients. Some clients would even propose their own designs, to which Ze-King will oblige.

“A seal’s pricing is determined by it's workmanship and cost of the seal stone. Depending on how skillful and famous the seal making artist is, the price ranges from a few US dollars to over USD10,000,” remarks Ze-King.

Another way to distinguish a top-notched seal from another, says Ze-King, is to look at the materials. Generally, seal stones such as the Changhua Bloodstone is used. However, Ze-King also works with jade, bronze, silver, gold, gems, wood, roots and clay.

In producing a seal, the design is first sketched on paper, and then engraved on stone, in reverse, with a knife. In addition to the mastery of traditional calligraphy, the art of engraving requires a high degree of virtuosity, since the artist works on a tiny surface area where every curve, every thickness of line counts.

From a well selected part of a good quality raw stone, the piece is cut into perfection, and polished to match the stone's natural pattern and texture. To Ze-King, a great artist is one with the hand to design with many restrictions in tradition while still allowing himself to infuse new inspiration into the seal.

“Ever since the beginning of my seal engraving career, I’m thrilled to think that I will leave a mark in history by leaving behind thousands of seal that I have personally hand carved,” says Ze-King. “I hope to inspire the future generation with what I left behind after my passing, therefore I will not stop trying to improve my craft as long as I live.”

By Lillian Wee
Photos by Law Soo Phye



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