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Identification and Creation

Object Number
Chen Chi-kwan (Chen Qikuan) 陳其寬, Chinese (Beijing 1921 - 2007 Burlingame, California)
Small Is Beautiful, Less Is More
Work Type
album folio, painting
Persistent Link

Physical Descriptions

Accordion-fold album of twelve center-folded leaves, featuring the twelve symbols of the Chinese zodiac in sequential order; ink and ink and color on paper, with artist’s inscriptions
each leaf: 16.8 x 23.8 cm (6 5/8 x 9 3/8 in.)
closed album: 17 × 12 × 2.5 cm (6 11/16 × 4 3/4 × 1 in.)
Inscriptions and Marks
  • Signed: Title page, black ink: Written by Chen Qikuan, 1989 (Chinese brush-written characters followed by a red seal reading "Chen Qikuan yin")
  • inscription: brush-written on opening page translates as follows: "On the elegant request of my elder brother, Chu-tsing, and his wife, Yaowen. Written by Chen Qikuan, 1989. Small is Beautiful, Less is More."
  • seal: artist's seal: Square red relief seal, following signature: "Chen Qikuan yin"
  • inscription: brush-written on twelve leaves: Leaf 1) "The jiazi year [1984]. Live Together in Peace. Spring Plum."
    Leaf 2) "The yichou year [1985]. Half-Day Break in the Fleeting Life. Chance Meeting."
    Leaf 3) "The bingyin year [1986]. Tiger-Shaped Talisman. In Spring, Flowers Fly Everywhere in the City."
    Leaf 4) "The dingmao year [1987]. Flying Leap. Roots."
    Leaf 5) "Riding the Dragon. The wuchen year [1988]. Drinking One's Fill."
    Leaf 6) "The jisi year [1989]. Deja Vu. Fresh."
    Leaf 7) "The gengwu year [1990]. Prairie. Autumn Colors."
    Leaf 8) "The xinwei year [1991]. Auspicious. Longevity. A Surplus."
    Leaf 9) "The renshen year [1992]. Home. Geese Flying South."
    Leaf 10) "The quiyou year [1993]. Opportunity. Pickled Vegetables."
    Leaf 11) "The jiaxu year [1994]. Team Spirit. Winter Scene."
    Leaf 12) "The yihai year [1995]. Lifeline."


Recorded Ownership History
Chen Qikuan, Burlingame, CA, 1989, gift; to Chu-tsing Li, Lawrence, Kansas (1989 -2012), gift; to his son B U.K. Li, Milwaukee, Wisconsin (2012-2016), gift; to Harvard Art Museums, 2016.

1. Dr. Chu-tsing Li (1920-2014)

Acquisition and Rights

Credit Line
Harvard Art Museums/Arthur M. Sackler Museum, The Chu-tsing Li Collection, Gift of B U.K. Li in memory of Chu-tsing Li, Yao-wen Kwang Li, and Teri Ho Li
Accession Year
Object Number
Asian and Mediterranean Art

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Chen’s album offers delicate renderings of animals, birds, fruits, and vegetables in the “boneless” style of past masters, in which ink or color washes are applied without outlines or distinct brushstrokes. The vivid color washes are rich and wet, accented by fine ink lines. Here the artist has created a personal miniature world in which living creatures exist apart from real time or space. And yet, upon closer examination, it becomes apparent that the creatures depicted are the twelve animals of the Chinese zodiac for the cycle of years from 1984 to 1995. Standing in for the dragon is the appropriate Chinese character, rather than a depiction of the beast. The Chinese calendar dates appear on each page, as do puns or homonyms that refer to auspicious omens suggested by each animal.

Publication History

  • Robert D. Mowry and Claudia Brown, A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950-2000, exh. cat., Harvard University Art Museums/Yale University Press (Cambridge, Mass., 2007), cat. 56

Exhibition History

  • A Tradition Redefined: Modern and Contemporary Chinese Ink Paintings from the Chu-tsing Li Collection, 1950-2000, Harvard University Art Museums, Arthur M. Sackler Museum, Cambridge, 11/03/2007 - 01/27/2008; Phoenix Art Museum, Phoenix, 06/28/2008 - 09/14/2008; Norton Museum of Art, West Palm Beach, 10/11/2008 - 01/04/2009; Spencer Museum of Art, Lawrence, 02/11/2009 - 05/24/2009

Verification Level

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