Yuan dynasty 1260–1368
The relative stability of the early thirteenth
century, with the Jurchen-led Jin dynasty in the north and the Southern
Song in the south, was shattered by Mongol incursion. Chinggis Qan
(Genghis Khan) (ca. 1165–1227) and his ferocious army swept into China on horseback. With the fall of its
capital at Beijing, the Jin dynasty was defeated in 1215. After
the death of Chinggis Qan, the military campaign was taken up and
completed under the leadership of his grandson, Qubilai Qan (Khubilai Khan)
(1215–1294). The Southern Song fell in 1279, and once again north and
south China were reunited. Qubilai had assumed the title of Great Qan
in 1260, and proclaimed himself emperor of China in 1271. Earlier in 1259,
before he became the Mongol leader, he had established a princely
residence in the city of Shangdu—the famed pleasure-dome in Coleridge's
poem "Xanadu." Shangdu was planned for Qubilai by the Chinese monk-official
Liu Bingzhong (1216–1274), who was also responsible for the design of
the new Yuan dynasty capital city of Dadu, located at the site of
The Mongols ruled China for about one hundred
years. During this short time, they established new rituals and
institutions that heavily influenced the following Ming and Qing
dynasties. The Mongols adopted many features of Chinese culture, but
early in their rule they were suspicious of having native Chinese
serve in government. In turn, many Chinese scholars and officials felt
alienated and refused to serve the Yuan, preferring instead to
live in retirement or pursue unconventional professions.
Rather than stifling creativity, however, the tension between
the Mongols and their Chinese subjects seems to have energized
the arts of the period. In addition, new religious and secular
practices were introduced into China. At different times, the
Yuan government alternated in its support between Daoism and
Buddhism; and the Mongol rulers particularly favored Lamaism,
a form of Tibetan Buddhism.
In their conquest of China, the Mongols
had relied on their military prowess. Accustomed to a mobile
steppe society, they had to devise new institutions that would
enable them to rule a land in which they were a decided minority.
Within a hundred years, the military strength of the Mongols was
no longer dominant. Political infighting further weakened the
ruling house, and widespread dissatisfaction and rebellion
erupted around the country.
Painting and Calligraphy
A return to past styles by Yuan artists led to the use of
expressive calligraphic brushwork in painting to express
images of nature and of the mind. Calligraphy became critical
to the practice and understanding of the pictorial arts, and can be
seen in the works of Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322) and Ni Zan (1301–1374).
Zhao Mengfu looms over the history of both calligraphy
and painting during the early Yuan. A descendant of the Song imperial family,
Zhao followed the example of many other loyalists by withdrawing from public
life. He was eventually coaxed into government service by Qubilai Qan
(Emperor Shizu, r. 1260–94), and held several prominent official posts.
As an amateur painter, Zhao Mengfu undertook a comprehensive study of the
styles of earlier masters. As a calligrapher, he explored an equally
diverse range of styles. Combining principles of monumental writing from
the Han and Tang dynasties with the fluid, more intimate brushwork of Wang Xizhi
(303–361), he produced a new model of standard script, as displayed
in his Record of the Miaoyan Monastery (Princeton University Art Museum).
Within a short time, his standard-script style became a model for
calligraphy and typeface for woodblock printing throughout China.
One of the Four Great Masters of the late Yuan,
Ni Zan is widely known for his landscape style, characterized by dry
brushwork. He became a model for later literati painters, who
admired his noble character and praised his seemingly simple
paintings as reflecting inner strength and fortitude. In 1353
Ni Zan began twenty years of waterborne wandering. One of the
richest and most cultured men of his region, he was forced to
flee from his lands during a period of Chinese rebel uprisings.
This phase of his life may be reflected in a poem on his painting
Twin Trees by the South Bank (Princeton University Art Museum),
which mentions how he moored his boat, visited a friend, and left
behind the painting as a remembrance.
With new market demands resulting from the reunification of north
and south, as well as new Mongol tastes and the
demand for exports to the Near East, Japan, and Korea, the
Yuan was a period of innovation in ceramic production.
Sources for new decorative motifs and vessel shapes came from Near
Eastern metalwork, Tang dynasty features surviving in Jin
dynasty ceramics, and archaic Chinese bronzes and jades.
In this period, the center of ceramic production
shifted to the south, where overseas trading routes led to markets
as far away as Japan, India, and Africa. At the Jingdezhen complex
of kilns in Jiangxi province, yingqing or qingbai porcelains
exhibiting a bluish-tone glaze continued to be produced along
with new types of porcelains painted with underglaze copper-red
and colbalt-blue designs. Celadons with a more olive-green
shade than their Song counterparts continued to be produced
at the Longquan kilns in Zhejiang province. Some of the most
innovative techniques were developed for stonewares produced
in the area of Cizhou, Shanxi province. Having a dark clay
body, these wares were decorated in various manners. Some
had a white slip ground painted with underglaze black-iron
pigment and sometimes incised designs, while others were
detailed using a sgraffito process, overglazes,
polychrome, and numerous other techniques.
James Cahill, Hills Beyond a River: Chinese Painting of the Yuan Dynasty, 1279–1368 (New York : Weatherhill, 1976).
John D. Langlois, Jr., ed., China under Mongol Rule (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981).
Sherman E. Lee and Wai-kam Ho, Chinese Art under the Mongols: The Yuan Dynasty, 1279–1368 (Cleveland: Cleveland Museum of Art, 1968).
Margaret Medley, Yuan Porcelain and Stoneware (London: Pitman Publishing, 1974).
James C. Y. Watt and Anne E. Wardwell, When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles (New York: Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997).