Army Crossing the Yangtze River by Li Keran

Offered at Christie’s in Hong Kong, a highly sought after work by one of the most important Chinese artists of the latter half of the 20th century

The People’s Republic of China was founded on 1 October 1949, signalling the dawn of a new era for Chinese art. Under the new cultural policies ‘how to serve the people’ and ‘how to describe reality’ became the guidelines for the development of a new school of Chinese painting.

During the politically charged 1960s, xinguohua, or ‘New National Painting’, pivoted toward depicting the prosperous and fulfilled lives of the people under the socialist regime, as well as the romantic imaginations of socialism. Popular themes for landscapes included sites related to the revolution and quotes from Chairman Mao Zedong.

As a leader of the New National Painting, Li Keran (1907-1989) never ceased exploring new creative possibilities. Born in Xuzhou in Jiangsu province, he began painting at 13, copying landscapes by Wang Hui. He enrolled in the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou in 1929, studying under Lin Fengmian and focusing on oil painting. His early oeuvre was deeply influenced by Shitao, Bada Shanren, and the Four Wangs of the Qing dynasty.

After the establishment of a new China and the arrival of a new artistic philosophy, Li Keran decided to depart from tradition and ‘write biographies for my homeland’s mountain and streams’. Beginning in 1954, he journeyed far and wide to paint from nature, visiting many provinces in the south and painting memorable landscapes.

Li Keran (1907-1989), Army Crossing the Yangtze River, 1964. Scroll, mounted and framed, ink and colour on paper. 96.2 x 60.3 cm (37⅞ x 23¾ in). Estimate: HK$20,000,000-30,000,000. Offered in Fine Chinese Modern Paintings on 28 May at Christie’s in Hong Kong

In the 1960s, he adopted ‘revolutionary romanticism’ and created works inspired by important sites and Chairman Mao’s quotes. Army Crossing the Yangtze River is one such work that represents his creativity within such a space narrowly defined by politics.

The subjects of traditional figure paintings, such as lofty scholars, monks, beauties, and deities, were replaced by common labourers, farmers, and shepherds, painted in a distinctive style that amalgamated Chinese tradition with Western techniques. The result is a body of work that represents a milestone in the history of Chinese landscape and figure painting.

Li Keran painted Army Crossing the Yangtze River  in 1964, 15 years after the founding of the People’s Republic of China, and a year after the publication of Chairman Mao Zedong’s poem, People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Occupation of Nanjing. The painting is Li’s interpretation of this poem, which Chairman Mao wrote upon learning of the PLA’s famous victory in a battle that had raged between April and June 1949.

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Turning Chairman Mao’s quotes into painting was a common practice in the 1950s and 1960s, as they were appreciated by the intellectuals. In addition, such paintings were considered politically safe. This approach provided artists a valuable outlet for their creativity as well as their spirituality.

The painting depicts the the PLA crossing the Yangtze River in order to occupy Nanjing, then the capital of the Republic of China founded by the Nationalists in 1911. The PLA’s victory led to the essential collapse of the Nationalist government.

Army Crossing the Yangtze River  demonstrates how Li Keran ability used ink wash to create atmosphere. The ink-washed evening sky contrasts sharply with the light-brown ships and orange-red flags. Yellow texture strokes applied with a saturated brush convey the complexity of the reflections on the waves.

This year marks the 70th anniversary of both the establishment of the People’s Republic of China, and the historic Yangtze River Crossing Campaign. Li Keran’s painting, the largest and most comprehensive known composition of this theme, offers a window through which to reflect on some of the most significant events in modern Chinese history.

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