Yuan dynasty 1260–1368

Selections from the Collection

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 present-day Beijing.

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.

Further readings

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).

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Anonymous, Chinese
Jar with fan-shaped leaf designs
China, Yuan dynasty, 1260-1368
Cizhou stoneware with underglaze painted designs
h. 31.7 cm.
Bequest of John B. Elliott, Class of 1951