Authenticity and Authorship in Classical Chinese
May 10, 2005 11:33 PM   Subscribe

I'm writing a paper about Classical Chinese norms of authorship disguised as a legal article about Intellectual Property. I'm looking for a citation on the following story: Chinese painters (or calligraphers) would apparently purposefully ruin their authenticating stamps, so that the resulting flaw would result in a harder-to-forge mark. Does anyone know where this is from?

I'm generally arguing against William Alford's explanation in TO STEAL A BOOK IS AN ELEGANT OFFENSE--a fairly unnuanced generalization of Chinese culture, roughly summarizable as "Hey the Chinese love copying!" My paper's a little complex to explain here, but I'm basically saying that (1) the Chinese did have a limited notion of authorship, enough of a concept that they would want proper attribution; and (2) what we see as copying in chinese arts could be likened instead to manipulation of genre conventions or referential (post)modernism, something we see in the West, whether in the form of The Waste Land or Q. Tarrantino movies.

I'm mainly interested in finding the origin of this authenticating stamp story, but if you know offhand of any other interesting things to look at, feel free to divulge (regarldess of the relevant American IP norms! Ha ha!)
posted by kensanway to Writing & Language (3 answers total)
I haven't heard of the stamp-defacing theory, but it makes me think of something similar. I have heard that (currently) cartographers introduce small errors in their maps to be able to identify unauthorized copies. This may go back to older times; if so, I wouldn't be surprised at a Chinese origin. May be a connection?
posted by attercoppe at 7:14 AM on May 11, 2005

A not entirely irrelevant sidebar: Don't know if it is still the case, but it used to be standard practice for immigration authorities in various countries to create little imperfections in the entry and exit stamps used to mark passports - small breaks in the frame lines, for example, or deliberately off-set letters. The theory was that forgers would inadvertently "correct" the deliberate errors and thereby undermine their efforts.
posted by senor biggles at 7:43 AM on May 11, 2005

I had definitely heard this story before--I have no historical evidence to back it up, so I can't tell whether it's apocryphal--but it was in the context of a well-researched historical game based in ancient China, so most of what we learned was well-grounded in fact.
posted by LairBob at 10:14 AM on May 11, 2005

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