I called in at the box of delights which is the British Museum on my way to meet some friends in London last week. I like picking a theme when I go, as it’s otherwise impossible to choose where to go, and you end up stumbling from room to room in a kind of nostalgic daze, feeling progressively smaller and smaller as the treasures increase in scale. This time I decided to head to the Americas before anything else, and meandered through the Aztecs, the Arctic and the North American collections.
Before long I found myself predictably off-piste and gazing at a small temporary exhibition in the Far East rooms, 5 or 6 small cabinets containing a collection of of contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing.
Li is an engigmatic figure in modern Chinese politics; he served as Vice Premier of the State Council of China from 1993 to 2003 and played a crucial role in both the opening up of the State economically and the development of national education. Since his retirement from politics he’s turned his energy to the promotion of his two passions – classical music and seal-carving. The latter, one of the four traditional chinese art-forms (along with calligraphy, painting and poetry) is a truly ancient art, and Li’s interest illustrates the dichotomy present in his personal politics; he is a deeply modern man who is simultaneously respectful of tradition. Consequently his seals, which look at first to be deeply conventional, display a great deal of depth – often international in outlook, often witty and wise, always imbued with his passion for life, and very much of the twentieth and twenty first centuries.
His passions shine through; there are stunningly beautifully wrought expressions and aphorisms (the tiny, contained ‘Eat like an ant’ and the wide, spare ‘My heart calm as the water’), and tributes to great figures like Dickens, Goethe and Cervantes. His ‘Opera Disc’ seal, with its use of the English language subverts the geographic specificity of his usual work.
One seal, Baiting Roast Duck Restaurant (Bad Officials are Examined by an Illiterate Person), provides a great example of Li’s playfulness. Featuring some strokes carved to print in red and some in white, the seal mimics a malfunctioning neon sign with half it’s lights out. Moreover, each colour’s message reads differently; the white a traditional advertisement for a famous Beijing restaurant, the white a critique of hapless officials.
It’s a lovely small exhibition, and a little, light-filled window into a big, powerful, slow-changing, subtle China.