Wang Yuzhong — The Art of Chinese Seal Cutting

Wang Yuzhong was born in Beijing in 1958 and survived polio, Wang has persevered in the art of Chinese seal cutting for more than 40 years. In his young adulthood, his studies with Chinese seal cutting master Mr. Liang Yanyu gave him a foothold in traditional Chinese seal art. His further mentorship with Chinese calligraphy virtuoso Mr. Kang Yin led to the development of his own style. More recently, Wang’s move to the guidance of traditional Chinese artist Fan Zeng elevated his calligraphy-based seal cutting skills to an even greater height.

Chinese Seal Cutting

In the Analytical Dictionary of Characters, one of China’s earliest reference books on the philology of the Chinese language, the character “?” (pronounced “le” in Chinese, as in “clutch”) is defined as a pattern of lines that the constant forces of water may leave on rocks. It carries a cultural connotation that even the slightest trickle of persistent effort can make a difference, attaching greater significance to a process-driven mindset than to a result-driven approach, as the Chinese four-character idiom “constant dripping wears away a stone” implies. Nowadays, people seem more captivated by the allure of instant gratification. They rush hither and thither, trying to be everywhere, all for the sake of achieving some result in the shortest span of time possible. Few would want to stay put and watch one slowly drill through “stone.” But there are always individuals who, with loyalty, tenacity and even ecstasy, save the “stone” and keep it for as long as possible.

Deep in the China Bookstore on Glass Street in Beijing, one can find a small room branded with the name “Le Hut.” Wang Yuzhong, the owner of this property, refers to himself as the “Seal Creator of Le Hut.” He’s been practicing the art of Chinese seal cutting for over 40 years, during which time he’s refused all offers of financial support to open a seal boutique store in the capital or to practice the art in Japan. He wouldn’t leave his studio, his city or his country. “There would be no art creation in its truest sense if I went to Japan, just a money grab,” he said. “Things will not feel right if they are separated from their own culture.”

Wang’s 10-sqm studio is often glorified when noteworthy people come to seek a piece of his handiwork. It is a life well portrayed through a line from a famous Chinese poem, “No one illiterate I surround myself with.” But this is not what really matters to him. What does matter is when his stone, by some terrible accident, is dropped to the ground.

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“I can hardly move when I see stones.”

When Wang Yuzhong was seven months old, he was infected with the polio virus (poliomyelitis). Fortunately, this turn of fate didn’t afflict him with a sense of inferiority. “Don’t take pity on me,” he insisted. “Although my legs and feet don’t work well, we are equal.” Native Beijingers are known to have much rolling off their tongues once they start talking, but Wang is calm, reserved, but nevertheless sincere in all he has to say.

Wang Yuzhong studied alongside able-bodied children until he finished high school in 1975. His family started to plan early for his future, hoping that he could support himself as soon as possible. Chinese universities were off-limits to students with disabilities at the time. Wang’s uncle worked in the Capital Stenciling Factory. A craftsman of the older generation, skilled in making traditional Chinese hairpins of gold, silver and copper, he offered Wang guidance and inspiration and brought him into the seal cutting business. To secure for him a job that could be performed entirely by hand, Wang’s uncle took him to Liang Yanyu, a renowned seal artist who also worked in the factory, after Wang graduated from high school. There, he began to learn the art of seal cutting and calligraphy. The seal cutting maestro became a great positive influence, teaching Wang Yuzhong not only how make good seals, but also how to be a good man.

Wang’s first job after graduation was in a mimeograph factory set up by the Fengsheng Sub-District Office of Xicheng District, Beijing, where most of the employees were elderly or had disabilities. At first, he was assigned to the printing work group. Later, he moved to the stenciled lettering group. Over 40 years have passed, and the factory has long ceased to exist, whereas Wang is still in business today. This far exceeds his original expectations. He had often entertained the idea of quitting. “The reason I really couldn’t stay was the bad environment,” he explained. “People around me either were elderly or had disabilities, and many of them simply killed time at work, expecting government support. The thing is, if you’ve lost your legs, you still have your hands, and even if you’ve lost your hands, you still have your brain. You’ve got to do something.”

Mr. Liang Yanyu once owned a famous stone seal cutting franchise store—Engraving House—on East Glass Street, until the People’s Republic of China was founded in 1949. In the mid-1950s, the Engraving House was merged into the Capital Stenciling Factory. About a decade later, the brand name was restored to its original status. Later, the Xuanwu District Government further revived it at the Glass Street location.

In 1978, Wang Yuzhong left the mimeograph factory to work in the Engraving House. He’d been one of the earliest students there by the time China began to implement its reform and opening-up strategy. A ride on this high tide would still require hard work. It seemed at first like just another job, but as time went on, Wang found himself increasingly drawn to it. He discovered that whatever there is to be done, one must immerse oneself in it completely. “Once you delve in, it will be amazing.”

Stenciling is also a step-by-step process, and handwriting a standard script was all Wang did in the Engraving House, as it is usually the step that follows engraving. At that time, the rules were very strict, and “script work” should be nothing other than “script work”. “If we did something different, that would be thought of as wicked and out of line. At that time, when we occasionally spilled some creative juice, we would be criticized for goofing around.” Several years later, a dissatisfied Wang Yuzhong resolved to take a shot at being his own boss.

Wang Yuzhong
Wang Yuzhong

One morning, Wang ran into a friend who was working in the Industrial and Commercial Bureau, and their exchange unfolded as follows:

“What keeps you busy these days?”

“Trying to start my own business. What would you say about stenciling?” The question rolled off Wang’s tongue.

“I see nothing wrong with that.”

Wang Yuzhong thus followed his friend directly into the bureau, filled out the forms and then went back to work. Surprisingly, he got his business license within a week. Beijing’s first self-employer was licensed in 1982, and Wang Yuzhong joined this new group in 1984.

Following the implementation of China’s reform and opening-up policies, the number of foreign tourists in Beijing began to rise. The Glass Street became a popular attraction, and with that emerged a group of gallery and painting shop owners, including many of Wang’s old acquaintances, whom he’d known ever since beginning his apprenticeship. “At that time, most visitors were Japanese. They were interested in painting and calligraphy, and had a big appetite for seals. One customer bought as many as seven or eight seals in one purchase.” Back then, it was common practice to attract business at the airport and other destinations. It was not easy for Wang to do that. The gallery owners would send interested customers to his small studio.

He kicked off his business from home, starting with seal cutting. Back then, he charged 30 cents for every character he was asked to engrave. “An apprentice and I would have to cut as many as 120 seals in one night,” he recalled. “Sometimes the order would arrive at 11 o’clock at night, and we would have to deliver it by 7 o’clock the next morning.” Staying up all night was a new normal. On average, at least 40 or 50 seals were carved every day, and the prices rose from the initial 30 cents to a staggering 5 yuan per character.

From his days in a home-based workshop to the current era of the Glass Street studio, Wang Yuzhong has continued to occupy the same 10-sqm hut through more than 40 years of changes. “In the 1970s and 1980s, one could get rich by trading in calligraphy and painting antiques. If you put your mind to it, it may still be quite good. But I have a one-track mind, and nothing else can attract my attention. I can hardly move when I see stones.”

When you lead a horse to water

Seal cutting has a long history that dates at least to the use of imperial seals and signets, the progenitors of modern Chinese seals, in the pre-Qin period (2100 B.C. – 221 B.C.). Considering only their practical properties will yield no understanding of how they ushered into being an entire genre of art. Aesthetic value’s played an equally important role.

From a stenciling worker to a respected expert in calligraphy and seal cutting, Wang Yuzhong is glad he’s always had a teacher leading the way so that he didn’t go astray. In his studio hang photos he took with three masters of art: Liang Yanyu, Kang Yin and Fan Zeng, all of whom were famous in China’s painting and calligraphy circles.

Liang Jin, a grandson of Mr. Liang Yanyu, has been close to Wang for a long time, for they came up together as fellow disciples. “My grandfather had many apprentices,” Liang recalled, “and most of them gave up halfway, as they were not really into this art and craft, or simply saw it as a way to earn money to pursue fame and fortune. Yuzhong was the only apprentice my grandfather took to heart after China’s reform and opening-up in the 1980s.”

“From the moment he took me in to the day he passed away, he never once raised his voice at me. Back then, most teacher-pupil relationships would’ve involved at least a few harsh scolds,” Wang Yuzhong said of his teacher, expressing deep gratitude. Mr. Liang had warned him, “Don’t take yourself too seriously, and be modest.” To this day, Wang has kept this piece of advice in mind, regardless of the skill he’s acquired. “There will always be somebody better than you, so you’d better be modest.” China Central TV once contacted him about doing a show, but he refused. “Seal cutting itself is an apex of art,” he maintained, “and anyone interested will naturally want to learn about it. I don’t have any stories to tell, just works to deliver.”

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Mr. Liang died in 1998, leaving Wang Yuzhong feeling empty. “My teacher was gone, and I lost my anchor and had no idea where to go.” During that time, he put his mind to making money, but the more contact he had with the outside world, the less confident he became.

Wang’s second mentor was Mr. Kang Yin, who helped him transcend the status of skillful technician and become an artist and a master. In 1985, Wang began to study inscription and calligraphy with Mr. Kang, a philologist and epigraphist who believed that the application of both calligraphy and seal cutting should be based on a rigorous study of ancient Chinese characters and knowledge of some pictographic rules. Mr. Kang greatly inspired Wang in terms of bronze script, official script and regular script. During his studies with Mr. Kang, a dive into ancient Chinese characters broadened his vision. “You can’t presume to study calligraphy just because it’s a fad all around, or you’ll make yourself a fool,” Mr. Kang would often warn his students.

The project that has brought Wang the greatest satisfaction so far is titled Lisao, the name of a classic Chinese poem. It has 96 paragraphs, 477 sentences and 2,472 characters. This text took him more than five years to inscribe on 217 stone seals. The idea originated from Mr. Fan Zeng, a teacher whom Wang Yuzhong met through a friend in 2002, and on whom he left a good impression. “Known to me is a man of humble, loyal and benevolent character, and his works are of unyielding strength and integrity,” Mr. Fan said of Wang after seeing a few of the seals that he’d brought to their first meeting. “Come often when you have the time,” he added upon parting. In 2008, Mr. Fan took in seven craftsmen as his closed-door disciples and presented each with a piece of his calligraphy work as encouragement. To Wang Yuzhong, he gave the inscription, “Extremely skilled and well off on a middle way.”

Mr. Fan Zeng told Wang to learn more about traditional Chinese culture. When Wang was preparing to work on Lisao, the sheer size of this project was intimidating. “Take it slowly, it will take years of focused work,” advised Mr. Fan. In 2019, Lisao was finally completed. For Wang, this also marked a milestone of his professional growth over the years. Works of art invariably reflect the course of social evolution. There were times when fashion also intrigued Wang, but over time, he found that his artwork was not meant to be fashionable, and that he still needed to uphold tradition. “Working on Lisao was like pumping the brakes,” he reflected, “when I was headed in the wrong direction.”

“‘Hate’ or ‘love’ the stone?”

Randomly turning a page of the text version of Lisao, Wang Yuzhong points to the characters inscribed in the style of Yuan Zhuwen, one of the earliest seal cutting artists in the Yuan Dynasty. “These lines are all alive, and they run full and mellow, but now many people don’t really care if they inscribe in Tiexian or Yuan Zhuwen Style.” The topic of seal cutting seemed to raise his spirits. “Chinese seals follow strict rules,” he explained, “yet with the right mix of both dense and loose lines inscribed in a steady and natural manner. Run wild as a horse, or close up tight in places where you should. Qin seals are diverse in style and mostly have dense patterns. What makes it a good seal is that you can trace it back to something traditional. It’s not just for fun.” He speaks of preserving tradition as if there are engravings on his very veins.

When working on a new idea, Wang usually conceives of it in his mind first instead of sketching it on paper. “Once it’s there in my mind, I’ll write directly on the stone and keep going as far as my mind takes me. Nothing can hold me down. My thoughts are always changing, and I just go along until I can’t change anymore.” Traditional Chinese culture has been passed down through a continuous lineage and is vividly reflected in seal cutting. Every character that Wang cuts out fits into that tradition, though imbued with innovative elements as well. New styles and patterns should always honor morphological traditions.

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Mr. Fan once joked, “You’ve been expressing enmity for stones for decades, carving, cutting and grinding them. Why don’t you simply call your studio ‘Stone-Hating Cottage’?” After that, he thought about it for a bit and then wrote a banner for the property: “Stone-Loving Cottage.” But what does “love” mean here? “It’s just that you have to love it to make something good with it, just like loving your wife.” According to Wang’s wife, however, he loves stone even more than he loves her. “He doesn’t like to go out or travel,” she said. “He feels right only when he settles himself in this room.” The employees of China Bookstore arrive at work at 8:30 in the morning, but Wang usually arrives at 8:00 am, even on cold winter days, earlier than the security staff. Sometimes, when it rains in the morning, making his commute difficult, he waits with agitation. The minute the rain stops, he dons his coat and hurries off to his studio. Only then does he feel at peace.

“The insider knows the ropes,” as the saying goes. People in the seal cutting circle take pride in owning a seal created by Wang, but the himself artist doesn’t much care what others think of his works. “Anyone who knows will naturally know,” he maintains. “Even me. When I finish my work today—wow! But when I look at it tomorrow, ouch! Art knows no end.”

by Wang Yumeng

This story is part of a series of articles published as an exclusive editorial exchange between China Press for People with Disabilities & Spring Breeze and ABILITY Magazine.

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