Day 2: Classroom

Seal School: Day 2

Wednesday 2 November 2011
My First Class

I’m glad not to have to wait a day to start class, since that’s why I’m here, and I’m both excited and a bit nervous about meeting the teacher, not knowing what to expect, and stepping into a class already in session. I follow the office person up the stairs to the top floor of the same building, down the hall, and into a classroom. Very brief introductions/explanations are given, the teacher says okay, and tells me to sit anywhere. He seems quite young—maybe in his twenties—but I had learned long ago that it’s particularly hard to judge the age of someone Chinese. For the most part, they seem to age well. He’s neither friendly or unfriendly, just matter-of-fact and down to business. China Academy of Art classroomIts an average size classroom full of long countertop tables with cabinets below and openings for chairs. Most of the wooden chairs have cushions on them. The north wall is floor to ceiling windows looking out onto the flat roof of the building, with a tarpaulin-covered area obviously used to line-dry laundry.

The other students, I learn later, include three young Japanese women, a Korean woman, a young man from Romania, and an older French-speaking woman from Switzerland. I’m not introduced to any of them and class is conducted in relative silence, with only the scritching, scratching noise of stone being scraped by metal. Students speak to each other and to the teacher in Chinese. The only exception being the Japanese girls talking to each other. The Korean woman also seems to speak Japanese and everyone, except the teacher, speaks some English.

Lesson 1

I choose a seat near the window in order to have as much light as possible—my eyes are already feeling the effects of age—and put my duffel bag down by the side of the counter. The teacher asks first in Chinese and then, when I say I don’t speak well, by gestures if I have any tools with me. I answer that I don’t have anything. He picks up a stone and carving knife from another table and says something about my use of them; my sense of what he said was that I was being loaned them until I could get my own. He starts me off with a long white stone, not too thick. He sits down and indicates to me that I should watch what he’s doing. He cuts a few straight lines horizontally across the stone and indicates that I’m to do the same, starting at the top on one side and working my way toward the bottom, then continuing on all four sides. I make a few passes and he stops me to say I’m holding the knife in the wrong way. He holds the knife the same way I hold a pen or pencil but extends his ring and little finger and uses his ring finger braced against the stone. The blade is held flat to the stone with the near edge (toward the body) tipped up and the far edge lowered so as to contact the stone. The blade is pushed into the stone from right to left. I fill all fours sides of the stone with lines as he comes by now and then to check on my progress.

After I finish all four sides, with nothing else to do, I start filling in the spaces between the lines with more lines. When he sees me doing this he brings over a larger stone and has me follow him out of the room, around the corner, up a few stairs to a sort of landing with two sinks set into a stone countertop, and two washing machines. On either end of the countertop are doors leading into men’s and women’s bathrooms. Through the open door I can see these are asian style squat toilets (the one in my room was western style). We go to the sink where he wets a piece of coarse sandpaper he had brought with him and starts to sand down the end of the stone, which had previous carving on it. He indicates I should continue to finish both ends. He goes back to class and leaves me to work. It takes quite a while to smooth out the deep marks in the stone and I ruin the piece of sandpaper in the process; after I repeatedly wash the slurry off the paper the backing gets too wet and the paper starts to come apart as I use it. But I’m able to finish smoothing the stone and return to class, apologizing about the sandpaper.

The teacher now brings a small brush and ink to where I sit and draws a concentric squared-off line on one end of the stone. He then takes up the knife and begins cutting out these lines. After a few turns he has me take over and finish the rest. When I’m done he comes back and recuts the lines, widening them a bit and smoothing them out. Then he indicates I am to repeat the process of drawing lines and cutting them into the other end of the stone. When this is done he has me recut the lines as he had done.

Although filling a stone with straight lines may not seem glamorous I’m delighted even to be doing this. I find it hard to believe that I’m actually here in China doing what I had wanted to do for so long. I’m happy to  be starting from the beginning since I had wanted to know how seal carving was traditionally taught. Wang Gongyi—my teacher in Portland—had only talked about the design of seals and never really went into the techniques involved. My new teacher, whose name I later learn is Mo Enlai (here I’ll call him Mo as a convenience but in Chinese it is always Mo laoshi or just laoshi, which means teacher), brings over another stone and silently begins another process while I watch over his shoulder. He checks to make sure the end of the stone is smooth and flat. But first, because I am empty-handed, he waves for me to follow him. We take the stairs back down to the basement and, instead of turning right toward the cafeteria, we turn left down a long dimly-lit hall to a student store. He picks out a small brush, looks at the few seal stones available but isn’t happy with any of them, goes to the counter and pays for the brush. As I follow him through the shop I hastily glance at everything around me and am overjoyed to see all the Chinese art supplies I’ve seen in books and had always wanted to buy but was unable to find in the U.S. I’m going to come back here as soon as possible.

Lesson 2

I follow Mo in silence back up the stairs to the classroom where he brings some things back to where I sit and shows me the next step. He has several black and white photocopies of Han dynasty seals—several to a sheet of paper. He selects one, tears it out with an inch or so of the border and lays it down on the table. He then centers the stone over the reproduction, folds up two sides so he can hold them tightly against the stone and flips everything over so the photocopy is now on top. He smoothes the paper down over the stone, creasing the edges of the paper slightly over the edges of the stone, then pinches in the corners of the paper. He folds over the paper on two sides—a little like gift wrapping a box—so he can hold the paper tightly against the stone with one hand, pinching the stone and folded paper between thumb and first finger. With the other hand he takes the rubberish stopper off the top of a glass bottle of some clear liquid, picks up the newly purchased brush and dips it through the neck of the bottle and into the liquid. He wipes off the excess on the lip of the bottle, saying you only need a little on the tip of the brush, and then, using the side of the brush, swipes it in one stroke across the top of the paper. Putting down the brush he uses the palm of his free hand to press down on the dampened paper. Lifting off the paper leaves an impression of the photocopy on the stone. He puts the stopper back on the bottle (I can’t smell anything—it has no odor—and I can’t make out the label). He then picks up the knife and begins to cut out the white parts, leaving the black alone. He cuts the whole seal in silence while I watch closely, trying to see how he deals with such things as corners and ends of lines. I watch too how he holds the knife so I can try to imitate it. Then, when he is finished, he picks up another stone and indicates I am to repeat the process. He watches as I transfer the design, which he picked out, onto the stone. He looks at the results, gives his approval, and tells me to start cutting. I make a special effort to take my time and be particularly careful. He comes by now and then to check on my progress and corrects me on how I hold the knife. For some reason my default is to have the knife tip down towards me and the raised edge away, which is the opposite of the way he wants it.

Thinking about it later I think that, by raising the front edge and putting the far edge down, a cleaner edge will be made since the blade won’t be beveled into the cut and any breaks or chips and ragged edges will happen away from the point. But, with the raised edge toward me, it’s difficult to tell how close I am to the line. It reminds me of when I first learned Chinese calligraphy; I couldn’t seem to hold the brush and see what I was writing at the same time—my writing hand somehow covered up the point of the brush in contact with the paper. This all worked out with practice and I felt sure it would be the same with using the knife. Although I had been making seals for several years already, I really didn’t know how to use the knife. Since I didn’t have access to Chinese stone at home and, so far, had been unable to find a suitable substitute I had been forced to use harder stone available to me like marble and calcite. These couldn’t be cut with a knife and had to be ground with carbide burs using my Foredom flexible shaft drill. Since I did this work at home my teacher never saw how I worked and our conversations always focused on the design aspects of seal making. Now, cutting my first seal using the Chinese method, I experiment with different hand and body positions. Mo keeps the bottom of the seal flat against the table, so I imitate this too. After I finish cutting the stone he borrows another student’s toothbrush and scrubs the surface to remove any dust or chips remaining, holding it over the floor. While carving I used my finger to quickly brush away the dust after every stroke or two—I was already used to doing this at home—and noticed Mo doing the same. I heard another student constantly blowing on his stone but I had not done this at home because, since I was using harder stone and had to grind it, I wore a dust mask.

After I finish cutting the seal Mo brings some lightweight paper and borrows some seal ink from another student. I had brought a paper notebook which he puts down in front of him, places the thin paper on this and, after tamping the stone into the seal ink, sets the seal over the paper. He puts his palm down on the bottom (now the top) of the seal and presses down, rocking his hand a bit. Then he turns the stone and paper over together as one unit and rubs the back of his fingernail against the paper to press it against the stone to make a good impression. He says I can also use the back of a toothbrush. Carefully peeling off the paper from the stone, he takes some tissue and wipes the seal ink from the stone. Then he recuts the stone, going over my lines and, looking between the original design and my newly inked version, makes corrections. Then he restamps it next to my version. He says to do another, and points out several photocopied designs to choose from.

Time Flies

There’s some confusion about what time class actually begins. The Japanese girl I met at breakfast said it started at 8:30 but the office staff told me 9:00. Students wander in and out and at noon the teacher abruptly says goodby and leaves. The other students start getting ready to go too and one tells me it’s okay to leave our things where they are since there’s no one else using the room but us. Everyone says their goodbyes—most heading off to the dining hall for lunch before their next classes. I pick up my duffel bag and go back downstairs to the office.

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