Contemporary Chinese seals by Li Lanqing

1 November 2012 – 15 January 2013
Room 33. Free

This exhibition of contemporary Chinese seals by statesman-turned-artist, Li Lanqing, is the first to focus on this significant art form that has been under appreciatiated in the West. The exhibition features over 100 exceptional carved seals and two works of brush-written calligraphy by Li Lanqing, who has revived and updated the traditional art of seal carving. These objects are displayed in the Sir Joseph E. Hotung Gallery, which houses some of the best examples of Chinese art from across all ages, creating a special resonance by situating the contemporary seals within a historic context.

Li Lanqing (b.1932) is a prolific seal carver and calligrapher, who previously served as Vice Premier of the State Council of China from 1993 to 2003. Since his retirement in 2003, Mr Li has worked to transform seal carving by bringing a new focus on modern themes, including political commentary, as well as using inventive calligraphic approaches and also pioneering new materials.

For more than 2,500 years seals have served as commanding emblems of identity and authority in China. In the hand of rulers seals functioned as symbols of their dynasty or state and in the hand of individuals seals were proof of rank, much like a written signature. From the 14th century seal carving developed into an important art form achieving the same status as the Three Perfections – painting, poetry and calligraphy. Seals are judged for their physical beauty as objects but most importantly for the quality of the calligraphy for the inscriptions. Seal inscriptions use the potential of Chinese writing to the fullest and many draw on the pictorial qualities of Chinese characters, some of which originate in ancient pictograms.

The exhibition also includes a group of historical seals from the Han dynasty (206 BC – AD 220) to the 18th century from the British Museum collection and an early 20th century ivory seal lent by the Sir Victor Sassoon Ivory Trust. As a special loan from the Beijing Municipal Archives the exhibition also showcases the official seal of the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games. Mr Li was the judge to select this seal as Beijing's emblem to the world.

The exhibition also includes a collection of name seals for Western, as well as for Chinese culture heroes, a special interest of Li's who sees 'cultural exchange as the language of the soul'. He has made a set of twelve seals for important British citizens, including William Shakespeare, Florence Nightingale, and Charlie Chaplin, which the former Vice Premier is generously donating to the British Museum in honour of the Museum.

The British Museum has had Chinese works of art in its collection since its founding in 1753 and today the Museum continues to make additions to the collection, particularly works by contemporary artists. In addition to seals connected to British citizens, Li Lanqing is donating a seal he specially made that translates as "The British Museum".
The calligraphy of this seal is strong and clear announcing the Museum's name. Moreover, this seal is a signature-style work by Li Lanqing because it is made of wood coated with industrial lacquer. This is a new material in the art of seal carving that Mr Li introduced in order to find an attractive and durable material that is more affordable than the traditional handsome stones most carvers used in the past. Li Lanqing has done a lot in China to promote and revive the popularity of seal carving as a creative pursuit and this international exhibition serves to bring attention to this important art in the West.

Organised with the National Art Museum of China and the China World Trade Center

 Chinese seal made of wood and coated with industrial lacquer, 2012

Li Lanqing (b. 1932), The British Museum. Chinese seal made of wood and coated with industrial lacquer, 2012. © Li Lanqing. The artist will donate this object to the Museum in November 2012.

Notes to editors

Admission Free
Opening hours 10.00–17.30 Saturday to Thursday and 10.00–20.30 Fridays

An accompanying publication by Macmillan Publishers Limited “Works of Art by Li Lanqing: Chinese Seals and Calligraphy” will be available to purchase in the British Museum’s bookshop, paperback £50.

A full education programme accompanies the exhibition featuring seal carving and calligraphy workshops.


Chinese seals: tradition and innovation
Saturday 3 November, 09.30–17.00
Stevenson Lecture Theatre

Leading scholars will look at seals in religious, political and social contexts from the late Bronze Age (about 500 BC) to the present.


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