AAH 194: Visual Culture in Communist China

Union College, Spring 2022

Author: Avery Clavel

Landscape Masterpieces of Li Keran

Sounds of the Mountain and Water, Li Keran, ink and color on paper (1970)

Li Keran (1907-1989), born in Xuzhou China, was a heavily noted Chinese artist of the 20th century and significant educator at the esteemed Central Academy of Fine Arts. Li began painting around 1934, and continued to develop his art career from there on out. Li was inspired by a professor while attending the Shanghai Art College, who’s works involved blending Western and Eastern art styles. Li was present when Mao Zedong established the People’s Republic of China in 1949, and also became a member of the Yiba Art Society, a leftist art organization. After the Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945), Li started to create works using an imaginative splash ink technique, while spending a lot of his time drawing from nature. In 20th century Chinese art, Li was said to be remembered as a pioneer through his ability to blend in stylistic Western elements, and through his idea that to conduct a reconstruction of Chinese painting would be from drawing. 

Li’s works often illustrate the beauty of China’s landscapes, painting scenes of grand mountains, trees, waterfalls, etc. These works can be found in black in white or color, depending on what Li wants to portray. Landscape pieces including, and similar to Ten Thousand Crimson Hills will be included in this exhibition. In the exhibition, the idea of how Li was able to illustrate through his landscape paintings, the ideas of the Chinese Communist Party at the time, will be explored. What will also be explored is how Li’s personal beliefs were forced to be put in the dark in order to have his artworks fit in with society’s ideals. As mentioned earlier, Li was an important figure in the reconstruction of Chinese painting, so this theme is important as one can learn more about the impact and influence of Li, and artists similar to Li, as one of the things he was known for was mixing Chinese traditions with Western styles. Seeing how the Chinese government and society responded to Li’s adaptation of outside styles, will help shed light on the current ideals of the time, as well as the mindsets of the people, and what direction art was heading in 20th century China. 


Andrews, Julia F. Painters and Politics in the People’s Republic of China, 1949-1979. University of California Press, 1995. 

Andrews, Julia Frances, et al. Between the Thunder and the Rain: Chinese Paintings from the Opium War through the Cultural Revolution, 1840-1979. Echo Rock Ventures, in Association with the Asian Art Museum–Chong-Moon Lee Center for Asian Art and Culture, 2000. 

Hawks, Shelley Drake. The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. University of Washington Press, 2017.

Xie, Mian, and Charlie Ng. The Ideological Transformation of 20th Century Chinese Literature. Silkroad Press, 2016. 



Ten Thousand Crimson Hills

Ten Thousand Crimson Hills, Li Keran, ink and color on paper (1962).

Ten Thousand Crimson Hills is one of Li Keran’s most well known pieces. This work is an ink and color on paper created in 1962, in response to some criticism faced in a line from Mao Zedong’s 1925 “Changsha” poem (Hawks 2017: 69). Clearly this is a landscape piece, with vast mountains in the background, a waterfall flowing into diverging streams, and an abundance of trees surrounding a small village. Other than the painted affect of running water, the rest of the work remains in stasis. The size of this piece is 53.1 x 33.5 in. The vertical length of this work helps add a grand feel as the mountains are able to be painted more enormous. The mountains get lighter the farther back the viewer looks, adding more depth to the piece and showing how immense the landscape of China is. Individual brush strokes are able to be seen more easily when looking under the dots of red painted. Obviously, the color red is a big component to this piece as this color is associated with communism. The red in this piece is used to portray leaves and other plant life throughout the mountain, which is why the red look is so extensive. The pretty trees and giant mountains being painted this way points to the massive national pride and beauty of China, as this scene is very beautiful. Li also painted this piece in red as a line in Mao’s poem mentioned earlier, entailed that Li’s paintings don’t have enough color, as he responded to this by making “crimson hills” in this piece. Much of Li’s past works were completely in black in white which is how this criticism began. Ten Thousand Crimson Hills still received criticism, as a reviewer from a 1964 issue of Fine Arts said this work had a “sad atmosphere”, the opposite of what Mao’s poem was trying to portray (Hawks 2017: 71).


Hawks, Shelley Drake. The Art of Resistance: Painting by Candlelight in Mao’s China. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2017.


Chinese Ink Masterpiece Sells for $28m – Culture … http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/culture/art/2015-11/16/content_22465529.htm.

Li Keran

Li Keran was a pronounced Chinese artist of the 20th century and influential educator at the prestigious Central Academy of Fine Arts. Most of his works entailed landscape paintings that contained a mixed of ancient and contemporary styles. Li attended the Shanghai Art College where he was inspired greatly by a professor who’s ideals involved blending Eastern and Western art styles to create a new style of art in Chinese paintings. Li then was admitted to the Hangzhou National Art College where he studied drawing and oil painting. A few years later he then became a member of the Yiba Art Society, a leftist art organization. Li was present when Mao Zedong founded the People’s Republic of China in 1949. Li lived through the Sino-Japanese War, and during the period after began to create works by the use of an imaginative splashed ink technique. Li’s work became more recognized as he was proposed, and accepted, an invitation to join the faculty at the Beijing National Art College. Soon after he was acclaimed to be the most important painter in the post-Qianlonxg-Jiaqing period by his mentors, Qi Baishi and Huang Binhong. After 1954, Li spent a lot of his time drawing from nature, and had the idea that the initial step towards a reconstruction of Chinese painting would be from drawing. Through his ability to blend in Western elements, Li was said to be remembered more as a pioneer rather than a traditionalist or reformist, in 20th century Chinese art.

Mountain Village (1985), ink and color on paper and scroll


“Li Keran.” Li Keran Paintings | Chinese Art Gallery | China Online Museum, http://www.chinaonlinemuseum.com/painting-li-keran.php.



Avery Clavel

Hi! My name is Avery Clavel and I’m a junior majoring in Environmental Science and minoring in Data Analytics. I’m from New Jersey and took AP Art History in high school as well as a European art history class my first year at Union. I enjoy going to art museums and art history is definitely something I’ve taken an interest in the past few years. I’m excited to take this class as a lot of my high school friends live in China so it would be cool to learn more about their history and just art in general.  

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