PUBLISHED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 31 December, 2004, 12:00am

XIANG SONGQUI can be found everyday in his ramshackle shop in bustling Hepingxilu Street in the Liwan district of Guangzhou. Steep, short-treaded stairs, which can only accommodate half a foot on each step, lead up to Xiang's 100 sq ft living room, which doubles as his workshop. Here there are more than 200 seals, or chops, hanging overhead, made from jade, metal, wood and ivory.

Xiang's work table, passed down by his father, has edges rounded from long, hard use. 'It has 60 years of history, even older than me,' Xiang says.

Thick-lensed glasses, the result of years of eye-strain, balance on the end of his nose as he carefully puts the finishing touches to a fingernail-sized jade seal. He leans back and smiles in satisfaction at the four Chinese characters, an idiom meaning 'heaven favours those who work hard', which took him more than 20 hours to carve. 'Every time I finish a piece of work, I feel happy ... just like a child building a toy house with blocks,' says Xiang, 58, whose rough hands are dyed and scarred from 46 years of seal-making.

Sadly, Xiang is one of the dwindling numbers of seal craftsmen still plying the traditional trade in China, and these days he struggles to make a living. While some of China's traditional arts studied by scholars are virtually guaranteed preservation, many at the grassroots level, like Xiang's expertise, are on the verge of disappearing. 'I hope the skills won't be allowed to pass away with me one day,' he says quietly.

In ancient folklore, the first seal, the embodiment of power by heaven's mandate, was given to the mythical Yellow Emperor, Huang-ti (27th century BC), by a yellow dragon.

The earliest known seals in China date to the Spring and Autumn period (722-481BC). Seal-making became popular in the Qin dynasty (221-206BC) when the law of Shang Yang, initiating one of the first political reforms in Chinese history, was printed with bronze seals.

Apart from royal settings, seals were important representations of Chinese scholars' identities. Together with brushes, ink and paper, seals were 'The Four Treasures of Study' possessed by every intellectual and artist.

According to Xu Hai, calligrapher at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, seal-making gradually divided into two areas: one, in the academic field in which seals are made and studied by scholars and artists, the other, passed down by generations of craftsmen. Xu says the difference between the two is that unlike seal-making by academics, the trade by craftsmen has developed from hundreds of years of experience and understanding of Chinese culture, with some skills being kept secret among exponents and only handed down to craftsmen's eldest sons.

'But the two kinds of seal-making are receiving different treatments,' says Xu. 'While the academic study of seal-making is becoming increasingly popular, seal-making at the grassroots level may disappear in 15 to 20 years. One can easily gain fame from studying ancient arts, but it's hard to make a living if you pursue them as a traditional trade.'

Xiang says computer-designed, mass-produced seals and badly made 'fakes' - handmade seals created by untrained workers - were seriously affecting the traditional trade. The price of computer-designed seals is about 70 to 80 yuan, while one hand cut by a craftsman can cost double that. 'It takes me more than two hours to make a common seal, while a computer-designed one takes only five to 10 minutes by machine,' Xiang says.

Unlike the machine-generated seals, each one made by a qualified craftsman is unique, Xiang says, and those created by unskilled workers failed to contain the essential principles of seal-making, which relate to 'bronze characters', old Chinese characters first carved on bronze instruments in the Zhou dynasty (1027-777BC).

Simply knowing how to write the complicated characters is not enough, Xiang says. Genuine seal masters know how to vary styles according to certain principles that have been handed down through the generations. 'A designer's mastery and variation of bronze characters is important to a seal's beauty.'

Xiang can trace his family's seal-making skills back three generations. His grandfather's brother, a leading seal craftsman in Guangdong in his time, once made a seal for General Yu Han-mou, the military affairs commissioner for Guangdong in the 1930s. Xiang's father spent 84 years in seal-making, and was carving them in the week he died in 1996, aged 97.

Under this influence, Xiang developed a penchant as a boy for collecting seals. But he says taking up a career in the field as a 13-year-old was more through necessity than choice. 'My family was so poor then that seven people relied on my father's 47.61 yuan salary from the Guangzhou Seal Company factory every month,' Xiang says.

As the eldest child, Xiang began to shoulder some of the responsibility for earning a living for his family when he joined the same company as an apprentice in 1959.

With no formal education and virtually illiterate, he struggled to learn Chinese characters, which he described as 'little drawings or sketches'. He would get up at 6am every day and practice calligraphy until midnight - he still spends at least an hour a day practising the art.

The handling of small knives and chisels posed challenges for Xiang during his three-year apprenticeship. 'I cannot remember how many hundreds of scars I have on my hands,' he says. But he does remember his master telling him that he'd never be a qualified seal cutter until his fingers were soaked with blood.

Xiang's love for seal cutting and persistence eventually made him the top master in his factory and he could carve a seal without preliminary drawings. 'All my colleagues called me master at that time. But over the years, they have all changed to other industries as the business of manual seal-making became gloomy and our factory adopted computer-designed seal-making.'

Xiang set up his own 'chop shop' in 1964, and today his customers come from home and abroad. Two Japanese girls wrote to him several times after he made seals for them in his shop. 'It was in 1984. I didn't reply because I was still under the shadows of the Cultural Revolution and people might have accused me of conniving with foreigners.'

Relying on word of mouth to sell his work, Xiang's customers are dwindling. He's lost five apprentices over the years, all lured away by more lucrative careers. Even his two daughters chose to become English teachers instead of taking on their father's business.

'My pleasure now is to show my work to friends and visitors who come to my shop.' He points at a thick stack of books, which are full of the imprints of more than 100,000 seals he's made, mostly displaying people's names, but many detailing sayings, proverbs, poems and pictures. 'The quality of a seal depends on its flawlessness and clarity of calligraphy, balanced layout and artistic combination,' he says proudly.

His most notable series of seals was a set he made this year to mark the 100th anniversary of Deng Xiaoping's birth, carrying Deng's famous saying: 'It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.' But the seal Xiang is most proud of is one he made for a Hong Kong customer showing a praying mantis. 'The mantis is very vivid, the layout of the seal is perfect,' he says.

But Xiang's mood becomes pessimistic when talking about the future of his trade, fearing seal craftsmen are a dying breed, condemned by the government's emphasis on academic seal-makers. 'I hope the government makes efforts to conserve this historic art at the craftsmen level,' he says. But it's with an air of resignation that he picks up his tools, turns on his lamp, and continues about his business.