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Former vice premier puts his seal on history

SINCE retiring as Chinese vice premier in 2003, Li Lanqing has devoted himself to the ancient art of seal carving, which he says has broadened his mind.

An exhibition of more than 300 of Li's 400 creations is underway at the Shanghai Art Museum through February 19. The works use both ancient and contemporary Chinese calligraphy.

Seals have been used in China for more than 2,000 years and were used instead of a signature to identify the author of an artwork, a letter or a document. Official seals, or chops, were ?? and still are ?? essential to authenticate a document.

Seal carving requires strength, skill and patience, as well as a deep understanding of traditional Chinese culture.

As a former national leader, Li has been learning and practicing seal carving since his retirement.

Li, who served from 1993 to 2003, also wrote a book about the early days of China's reform and opening up. It was published in 2008.

Seal carving carries on the use and ongoing knowledge of traditional Chinese characters, which are no longer used officially today - simplified characters are taught in school. But Li uses ancient characters for the sun, water, wood and natural elements on his seals.

Li's carvings are not simply the name of an artist, but also tell stories from modern history as well as his daily life experiences after retirement.

One particularly personal stamp commemorates his 50-year-old marriage with Zhang Suzhen. The seal bears the couple's names, wedding date and a pair of loving hearts.

That stamp is accompanied by a poem to Li's wife, describing how they met, fell in love and lived for half a century.

Other seals deal public matters, including crucial policies and events that were pivotal to China's modern development.

One work in both Chinese and English succinctly describes Deng Xiaoping's decision to accept foreign loans.

In 1978, Deng used the phrase "borrowing a hen to lay eggs" to describe how China would use loans from foreign countries and international financial organizations to spur domestic social and economic development.

When creating this seal, Li departed from the traditional square shape to produce an egg-shaped design that includes ancient characters for borrowing, a hen and for laying an egg to capture Deng's pithy quote.

The exhibition includes a video in which Li describes his work and the in-depth knowledge of Chinese culture that is required to produce an elegantly simple seal.

"Carving a seal requires creativity and imagination because you have to find the perfect characters to express your feelings and ideas in the smallest amount of words possible," Li says in the video.

"The exhibition provides an insight into traditional Chinese culture," says visitor Zhang Shongliang, adding that seals reflect both history and everyday life that they can relate to.

"Although it's usually hard to understand those ancient characters on the bottom of seals," says Zhang, "here we can easily appreciate them through themes that are so close to our life."

"The patterns and shapes are diversified, so I can appreciate their artistic values even though I can't read the content," says his wife Zhang Xuelan.

Date: through February 19, 9am-5pm

Address: 3/F, 325 Nanjing Rd W.

Admission: Free

Tel: 6327-2829 ext 200


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