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Li Keran [Li K’o-jan]free

(b Xuzhou, Jiangsu Province, Mar 26, 1907; d Beijing, Dec 5, 1989).
  • Ann Barrott Wicks

Chinese painter. The son of a poor peasant family, Li studied painting under Pan Tianshou in 1923 at the Shanghai Academy of Fine Art, then in 1929 enrolled in graduate studies in oil painting and drawing at the National Academy of Art in Hangzhou, Jiangsu Province. The director of the Academy, Lin Fengmian, was a modernist who helped introduce Western art techniques to China. While in Hangzhou, Li Keran practiced Chinese painting and studied art theory on his own. As a political activist he also joined the Eighteen Society, a progressive art group inspired by Lu Xun. In 1932 he returned to Xuzhou to teach in a private art school.

When war broke out with Japan in 1937, Li moved first to Wuhan, Hubei Province, and then, after the death of his wife, Su E, to Chongqing, Sichuan Province, where he organized groups of artists to participate in anti-Japanese activities. It was in Chongqing that he developed his own style based on traditional Chinese painting. His familiar renditions of herd boys and water buffaloes date from this period. Softness of Twilight (Chang 1980, 101) shows an inky buffalo tethered in the foreground and two boys in the background perched on a tree, playing flutes. The traditional subject is playfully rendered, with a mastery of suffused and modeled ink that Li later transferred to landscapes.

In 1943 Li married Zhou Peizhu and taught Chinese painting at the Chongqing National Art College. In 1946, he accepted Xu Beihong’s invitation to teach at the Beiping [Beijing] Academy of Art and moved to Beijing, where he studied with Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong. When the Central Academy of Fine Arts was founded in 1950, he was appointed Professor of Chinese painting, a post that he held until his death in 1989.

During the 1950s Li Keran took a number of government-sponsored trips to various provinces in China and began to paint landscapes such as Road to Shu (Chang 1980, 103). The government policy of sponsoring Chinese artists’ travel was meant to foster Socialist Realism, but Li resisted the pressure to paint in that style and held to the traditional Chinese theory that individual interpretation is more important than form. He wrote that “it is idiotic to imitate nature slavishly in the style of those who tend toward naturalism. It should be noted that the artist paints not only what he sees, but what he knows … [He] relies not only on his senses … but what is more important, on thought” (Li K’o-jan 1959, 146). In an article published in Chinese Literature in 1961 Li also protested against the idea that peasants and workers could become painters simply because their ideology was sound, pointing out that consistent and long-term training was needed to become a professional artist.

In the early 1960s Li finally succumbed to political pressure. In Ten Thousand Crimson Hills (1964; see Mayching Kao 1988, pl. 2) the monumental mountain is presented in a traditional composition, but the foliage is ablaze with red, the color of revolutionary fervor. Li illustrated Ode to the Plum Blossom by Mao Zedong (1961) in a landscape with masses of red plum blossoms viewed from a pavilion, writing the poem directly on the painting with masterful calligraphy (Amid Ten Thousand Plum Blossoms, 1961; Phoenix, AZ, A. Mus.). In 1964 Li also wrote a favorable review of the People’s Liberation Army exhibition in Beijing, probably under pressure to atone for his earlier criticism.

Despite his efforts to appear politically correct, during the Cultural Revolution (1966–1976) Li was not allowed to paint but performed manual labor in the countryside along with his colleagues from the Central Academy. When Zhou Enlai commissioned artists in late 1971 to decorate Beijing’s hotels and state buildings with traditional Chinese paintings, Li Keran briefly came back into political favor, painting such works for the government as a large painting of the Li River for the Minzu Hotel. His paintings from the early 1970s are full, rich mountain landscapes built up through layers of saturated ink. Many of them are political, such as Marching through Loushan Pass at Sunset (see Cohen 1987, pl. 343), which shows an episode from the Long March and illustrates a poem by Mao. However, in 1974 Jiang Qing mounted another attack on traditional Chinese painters, and Li Keran was castigated as a “black painter.” His work Mountain Village after Rain (see Laing 1988, pl. 13), a masterful contrast of subtly modeled ink wash, mountains, and misty water with neat white houses and bright pink cherry blossoms, was censured as nothing but black ink and black water.

In the early 1980s Li returned to the spontaneous and warmly humorous style of non-political figure painting he had used in the 1940s. Playfulness in the Autumn (1982; see Lim 1983, pl. 22) shows two herd boys playing while their water buffaloes sleep. Laughing Monk (1983; see Lim 1983, pl. 21) shows a fat, jovial monk laughing at the cares of the world. Later in the decade he painted more of the dark, full, richly colored landscapes that he had first begun to experiment with in the 1950s, bringing them at last to full fruition.


  • Li Keran shuimo fengjing xiesheng huaji [Collection of Li Keran’s watercolors of landscapes and still lifes]. Tianjin, 1956.
  • Li K’o-jan [Li Keran]. “Some Thoughts on Chinese Painting.” Chinese Literature 8 (1959): 139–146; R in E. Horizon 1, no. 4 (Oct 1960): 32–38.
  • Li K’o-jan [Li Keran]. “Art Is Achieved by Hard Work.” Chinese Literature 7 (1961): 120–125.


  • Chang, A. Painting in the People’s Republic of China: The Politics of Style. Boulder, 1980, pp. 57–63, 101–109.
  • Cohen, J. L. China Today. New York, 1980.
  • Lim, L. Contemporary Chinese Painting. San Francisco, 1983.
  • Cohen, J. L. The New Chinese Painting, 1949–1986. New York, 1987.
  • Ch’en Po’chueh. “Li Keran hualun yu huihua zhi yanjiu” [A study of Li Keran’s painting and theory of painting]. MA thesis, Taiwan Chin. Cult. & A. Res. Inst., 1988.
  • Mayching Kao. Twentieth-century Chinese Painting. Hong Kong, 1988.
  • Laing, E. The Winking Owl: Art in the People’s Republic of China. Berkeley, 1988.
  • “Jinian Li Keran xiansheng” [In commemoration of Mr Li Keran]. Meishu 267 (Mar 1990): 4–35.
  • Wan, Q. “Li Keran (1907–1989) and Twentieth-century Chinese Painting.” PhD thesis, Lawrence, U. KS, 1991.
  • Wan, Q. Li Keran ping juan. Taipei, 1995.
  • Weihe Chen. “The Landscape Painting of Li Keran and its Special Qualities.” Diss., Durham, U. Durham, 1997.
  • Wan, Q. “Li Keran and His Exhibition Paintings.” In Chinese Art: Modern Expressions, edited by M. Kearn and J. Smith, 182–211. New York, 2001.
  • Li, K. Li Keran. Beijing: Renmin Meishu Chubanshe, 2003.