From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, December 23, 2011

Fieldnotes From History (24)—Chops

[a] Zodiacal RF
Part of an occasional Round and Square series that follows the blog’s main theme (east meets west, round meets square, and past meets present), these snippets from my early fieldnotes are reproduced as they were written by hand—and then revised on an ancient desktop computer—during my first fieldwork stay in Taiwan (1985-1987).  All entries are the way that I left them when I returned to the United States in 1987—some nicely-stated and some embarrassing. Although the series began with my assumption that the entries can stand alone, I have found that separate comments and notes might help readers understand a world that is now, well, history. These are always separate from the original fieldnote.
[b] Bigchop RF

I enjoyed writing this note a few days before Thanksgiving in 1985. I clearly am trying to tell a story here, and had already internalized an "audience" as I wrote notes by then (I discuss this matter in detail in the introduction to this series). Nonetheless, there is a combination of story and cultural information that—like a good fieldnote—leaves open the possibility of deeper analysis in future writing. Unlike almost everything else I have posted so far, I sort of like this fieldnote.

—"Chop" is the English word (borrowed originally from Malay) for a variety of character combinations, including yinzhang (印章).

25 November 1985
The vast majority of the time, Chinese do not use a pen to write the characters of their names on documents or letters. They use a chop. When I had to open a bank account in August I, too, had to buy a chop. However, not being Chinese, and not understanding “chop subculture,” I went downtown and bought an elaborate soapstone model, complete with a sleeping mother pig and four piglets carved on top (the pig is the traditional Chinese zodiacal emblem for those born in 1959, 1971, 1983—every twelfth year). It cost NT $600.00 (US $15.00), which didn’t seem like much, considering I can use it all my life. So I reasoned.

When I signed my bank book, a woman I work with started hooting with laughter. She told me that people don’t use those gaudy icons to sign their names; the ones Chinese people use on documents are about a fourth the size of it. It was too late, though. By that time, everybody on the fourth floor of the company had come to take a look at the American’s chop. They talked about it for weeks. To tell the truth, it didn’t seem so big to me until I went out and bought the standard, cheap wooden model that people use everyday. Now I can see what’s so funny. The big ones are used only for special occasions—like signing marriage licenses or international treaties. They aren’t used in bank books.

It wasn’t a total waste of money, however. Everybody has the big kind. After hearing my story, my English student (he is actually a neurosurgeon), went to his office and brought back an armload of chops—large chops, small chops, round chops, curved chops, square chops, chops with ancient characters, and chops with modern characters. Chop, chop, chop. I asked him what he used to sign documents. He took out a standard NT $50 (US $1.25) model. I asked him what he did with all the others. “Show them to foreigners, I guess,” he said.
[c] Chop copse RF

1 comment:

  1. I have a very nice, pearlescent chop given to me by the Students' English Association at Henan University, as a 'thank you' for getting up and practicing English pronunciation with them at 6:45 am two days of the week. It's not quite as ostentatious as yours, but I generally keep it in my cabinet and show it to Chinese friends when they come visit.

    I really enjoy reading your "Fieldnotes from History" series, not least because the author is not too different in age from me, and in a setting (geographical and otherwise) not too far removed. Perhaps it's part self-defense then, but I think he does alright in the circumstances.