Yuan Dynasty Art
Characteristics of Mongol Arts and Culture in Medieval China.

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Kublai Khan out Hunting (c.1280)
National Palace Museum, Taipei.
Silk painting by Liu Guandao.
One of the top Chinese painters
of the Yuan Dynasty. Kublai Khan is
depicted wearing Mongolian-style
furs over Chinese silk brocades.

For dates of other early cultures,
see: Prehistoric Art Timeline.
For later dates,
see: History of Art Timeline.
For movements and periods,
see: History of Art.

Yuan Dynasty Art (1271-1368)
Types and Characteristics


Visual Art under the Mongols
Decorative Arts and Crafts
Later Chinese Dynasties

Additional Resources

For earlier Chinese cultures, see:

- Neolithic art in China (7500-2000 BCE)
- Shang Dynasty art (1600-1050 BCE)
- Zhou Dynasty art (1050-221 BCE)
- Qin Dynasty art (221-206 BCE)
- Han Dynasty art (206 BCE - 220 CE)
- Arts of the Six Dynasties Period (220-618 CE)
- Sui Dynasty art (589-618)

Visual Art under the Mongols

The era of Song Dynasty art was brought to an end by nomads from Mongolia, whose agenda did not include the promotion of Chinese art in any form. The Mongol Dynasty led by Genghis Khan (1162-1227) had ruled lands in northern China since 1215, but it was not until 1271 that his grandson Kublai Khan (1215-94) - leader of the Mongolian Borjigin clan - finally subdugated the Southern Songs, proclaimed the Yuan Dynasty in the traditional Chinese style, and set up a Chinese-style administration. (In fact it wasn't until 1279 that the Yuan completed their conquest of South China.) Kublai Khan was the first Chinese ruler to establish his capital at Khanbaliq (also called Tatu or Dadu) - present-day Beijing. The Yuan were also the first foreign dynasty to rule all of China, but - despite its connections within the wider world of the Greater Mongol Empire - their rule in China lasted a mere 90 years. With no experience of running a centralized empire, the Mongols adopted Chinese political and administrative methods, but growing factionalism at court and widespread corruption led to rebellion and collapse. Unlike the Songs and the earlier era of Tang Dynasty art (618-906), the Yuan did not officially encourage native Chinese culture: as a result, many artists retreated from public life and sought inspiration from the eternal characteristics of traditional Chinese art, as practiced by their forefathers. Chinese painters like Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322) and the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty championed the ideal of "literati painting" (wenrenhua), which valued individual scholarship and spirituality above surface decoration or immediate visual appeal. In fact, despite official indifference to Chinese visual art, the sciences and other cultural activities, significant progress was made in numerous areas including calligraphy, mathematics, poetry, and music. One important contributor to this general creativity was the re-establishment of trade links with the outside world, overland along the Silk Road and via maritime trade routes. Foreign merchants filled the coastal cities while the impact of foreign culture (like Islamic art) was felt throughout the decorative arts.

NOTE: For more about the culture of Asia, see: Asian Art (from 38,000 BCE).


Painting During the Yuan Dynasty

Chinese scholar-officials, the traditional mainstay of government bureaucracy in China, were largely sidelined by the new Mongol authorities, receiving at best only minor posts. This applied in particular to southern Chinese who had resisted the longest. As a result, many scholars withdrew into themselves, preferring to practice their form of traditional Chinese painting in solitude, or within narrow circles, or under the auspices of Buddhism or Daoism. Naturalism - truth to nature - was abandoned in favour of a more symbolic style of ink and wash painting (using stark and simple forms, like bamboo, rocks, clouds), as a vehicle for self-expression. Brushwork became almost calligraphic in its spiritual intensity. There was also a revival of Buddhist art, in the fields of sculpture - notably stone sculpture - and painting.

Among the best landscape artists of the Yuan period was the scholar Zhao Mengfu, who is renowned for his hand scroll pen and ink drawing, entitled Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1295, National Palace Museum, Taipei) - a work that was highly innovative in its layering of foreground, middle-ground and background to achieve a sense of depth - as well as his beautiful portraits of horses. Other famous Chinese painters of the Yuan era included the Jiangsu artist Huang Gongwang (1269-1354), the Jiaxing painter Wu Zhen (1280-1354), the Wuxi artist Ni Zan (1301-74) and Huzhou painter Wang Meng (1308-85). For the influence of Mongol culture on China's closest neighbour, Korea, see: Korean Art (c.3,000 BCE onwards).

Decorative Arts and Crafts During the Yuan Dynasty

Thus despite the fact that administration and politics were out of reach for many of the upper and middle class intelligentsia, numerous types of art flourished, including applied art, together with a range of decorative crafts.

In the field of Chinese pottery, for instance, the first recorded blue-and-white Chinese porcelain was manufactured and exported to Europe, where it surprised even connoisseurs with its signature qualities. (The earliest item of Chinese porcelain exported to Europe was the Fonthill Vase, which arrived about 1338, in the final years of the Yuan.). It was during the Mongol era that Jingdezhen, a city in the southern province of Jiangxi, became the most important centre of porcelain manufacture in China and therefore - given China's ascendancy in ceramic art - the world.

In addition, renewed attention was paid to traditional crafts, including goldsmithing, as well as jewellery art - using gold, silver as well as other precious metals, minerals and rocks, such as lapis lazuli from northeastern Afghanistan. Chinese lacquerware was also popular, as was jade carving in all varieties.


Among new art forms which emerged during the early Yuan, zaju was a type of popular theatrical entertainment - a type of opera or vaudeville involving poetry, gymnastics, music, painting and other forms of decorative design. It even extended to artifacts found in tombs of the period, such as mural paintings and a variety of small statues depicting popular zaju characters.

Later Chinese Dynasties

For more about the historical background to Yuan Dynasty culture, see: Chinese Art Timeline (18,000 BCE - present). After the Mongols, Chinese visual arts are usually categorized as follows:

- Ming Dynasty art (1368-1644)
- Qing Dynasty art (1644-1911)

• For more about Chinese arts and culture under the Mongols, see: Homepage.

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