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8.7: Mongol Empire: Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368)

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    During the latter part of the Song Dynasty, China faced a formidable challenge from the Mongols, led by the legendary Genghis Khan. The Mongols aggressively conquered most of northern China and posed a significant threat to the Song Dynasty's borders. The Song Dynasty, which had been ruling over China for centuries, was facing its greatest challenge yet. As the Mongols continued their conquests, they eventually declared Kublai Khan, the Great Khan, as the Emperor of China. This marked the beginning of a new era in Chinese history, the Yuan Dynasty (8.9.1). The Mongols, while replacing the existing leaders, adopted Chinese culture and political practices. This period in Chinese history is often referred to as the Mongol Dynasty, although lower-level governments remained in place.

    In the Yuan dynasty, China underwent a remarkable historical metamorphosis when it was completely subjugated by foreign rulers and integrated into the expansive Mongol Empire. Remarkably, despite a century of foreign occupation, Chinese culture not only persevered but also flourished. By the year 1279, the Mongols had taken over the Song Dynasty's territories, marking the first time in China's history that an external conqueror controlled the country. As the new Emperor of China, Kublai Khan relocated the capital to modern-day Beijing and declared the beginning of a new era: the Yuan Dynasty. During the Yuan Dynasty, Kublai Khan supported scientific discoveries and advancements, encouraged and protected trade along the Silk Road, and welcomed foreigners, including the famous explorer Marco Polo, into the court. This policy of openness towards foreigners helped foster cultural exchanges between China and other parts of the world. All these developments helped shape the course of Chinese history and left a lasting impact on the country's cultural, political, and economic landscape.

    As a result of their limited expertise in governing a multifaceted empire, the Mongols gradually integrated Chinese political and cultural practices. They held control from their seat of power in Dadu (also called Khanbaliq, now recognized as Beijing) and increasingly adopted the mantle of Chinese monarchs. Nevertheless, during the 1340s and 1350s, internal political unity began to erode due to escalating factionalism within the court, widespread corruption, and a series of ecological disasters. Ultimately, this sparked a revolt that culminated in the dynasty's downfall.

    Map of South East Asia
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Yuan Dynasty (CattetteCC BY-SA 4.0)


    During the Yuan Dynasty, the art of printing underwent continual refinement. Notably, experiments with tin were conducted to produce more effective character molds. In 1297, Wang Zhen, a prominent scientist and writer of the era, introduced a significant improvement to the printing process when he developed a faster means of printing using wooden type. This innovation revolutionized the printing industry by enabling greater efficiency and productivity. Wang's contribution further cemented his reputation as a leading figure in the field of science and technology.

    In 1313, Wang Zhen devised a rotating table for the purpose of printing his book on agriculture, entitled Nong Shu (8.9.2). Utilizing wooden characters, he meticulously categorized them based on standard definitions of tones and rhyming. To ensure efficient typesetting, he created two tables: one for frequently used characters and another for rhyming characters. Each character was assigned a corresponding number to be called out during the printing process. The inking of the paper was accomplished through a technique whereby the brush would move up and down in columns, followed by a brush that would go from top to bottom to produce the desired impressions. By 1322, in one province, Confucian classics were printed “with movable type of 100,000 written characters on needed revolving tables.”[1]  

    By 1296 CE, in one province, Confucian classics were printed “with movable type of 100,000 written characters on needed revolving tables.”[2]  One hundred and fifty-six years before the European Gutenberg printing press was invented in 1452 CE.

    diagram of a moveable type machine
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): Typecase for Nong Shu (Public Domain)

    During the Yuan dynasty, industrious entrepreneurs established printing enterprises that created an extensive range of texts, covering subjects like religion, education, science, and literature. They even produced more than a million calendars for household and commercial use. A significant use of governmental printing was for currency. To prevent the production of fake copies, paper money was introduced as a pioneering idea. Initially, wood blocks were used for printing, but around 1275, they transitioned to bronze plates (8.9.3). Banknotes featured a warning for potential counterfeiters, threatening death as a punishment. Regrettably, the initiative was met with skepticism, and the new technology failed to gain widespread acceptance.

    Wang Zhen’s book, the Nong Shu or The Book of Farming was published in 1313 and had 800 pages and 100,000 words. It was a highly illustrated agricultural bible, full of Da Vinci-like drawings that would be used throughout China to instruct farmers and facilitate knowledge transfer.[3]

    carved wooden block and print
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): A 13th century CE wooden printing plate and paper bank note (1271-1368 CE) (PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 4.0)
    Wang Zhen

    WANG ZHEN, 2015 Paper Industry International Hall of Fame Inductee Wang Zhen. Printing Innovator, Dong Ping County, Shandong Province, China



    The Mongol conquerors had minimal influence on the art scene during the Yuan dynasty. Instead, painters of that time moved away from the belief that nature held the truth and focused on using art as a form of self-expression through representational forms. A prime example of this shift is seen in Fishermen Returning on a Foggy Bank (8.9.4), which portrays the daily life of fishermen while set against a detailed natural backdrop featuring a tree growing from rocky soil. Another influential work from that era is Bamboo and Rock (8.9.5) by Deng Yu. It is known for reflecting the natural interpretation of calligraphic painting.

    “The bamboo leaves are done in clerical script; the stalks, in seal script; and the rocks, drawn in mixed ink tones, simulate the "flying-white" style of calligraphy.”[4] 

    ink drawing of a tree and some people hiking

    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): Fishermen Returning on a Frosty Bank 

    (ink and color on silk, 144 x 89.7 cm) (Public Domain)

    a bamboo tree growing out of a rock

    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): Bamboo and Rock 

    (ink on paper, 135.1 x 42.2 cm) 

    (Public Domain)

    Kublai Khan, a renowned admirer of the Chinese culture, was a skilled leader who dedicated himself to restoring the war-torn economy of the empire. Additionally, he took great interest in supporting traditional Chinese arts by becoming a patron of them. As a result of his patronage, the literati painting tradition, which had been dormant since the early Southern Song era, saw a resurgence. Retired scholars who would have held important positions in a Chinese-led government revitalized this artistic form. The majority of these artists opted to live in seclusion near Hangzhou, where they spent their days painting, composing poetry, and honing their calligraphy skills.[4]

    The art of traditional Chinese painting centers around the essence of its subject, going beyond the physical appearance and capturing its inner vitality, spirit, and energy. This approach often entails a preference for monochromatic tones, akin to a photographer's use of black and white. According to the Chinese painter, color can detract from the subject's essence and conceal mistakes. Instead, they rely on the inked brush to produce indelible lines and give life to their creative vision, eschewing the changeable qualities of light and shadow and opaque pigments.[5]

    In China, calligraphy is a revered art form that demands dedication and expertise. From a young age, individuals typically emulate the established forms of Chinese characters to learn to write. As they advance, they are exposed to diverse styles and interpretations of these characters. To hone their abilities and refine their craft, they frequently replicate the works of esteemed calligraphers, many of whom have immortalized their art on carved stones for the purpose of creating rubbings.

    Artists developed a unique form of art that combined calligraphy, poetry, and painting to express their emotions and thoughts. They used vivid imagery and dynamic calligraphic lines to create paintings that were never truly finished. Poetic inscriptions were often added to the borders of the painting, as well as on the endpapers of handscrolls and albums. Future admirers and owners were encouraged to add their own inscriptions and seals, making each piece of art an evolving masterpiece. Sometimes these inscriptions were even added directly onto the painting itself.

    To “read” a Chinese painting is to enter into a dialogue with the past; the act of unrolling a scroll or leafing through an album provides a further, physical connection to the work. An intimate experience, it is one that has been shared and repeated over the centuries. And it is through such readings, enjoyed alone or in the company of friends, that meaning is gradually revealed.[6]

    Qian Xuan (c.1235-1301)

    During the Mongol conquest of China in 1279, Qian Xuan, a scholar-official residing in the Wuxing region of Zhejiang Province, was confronted with challenging circumstances as a "leftover subject."[7] Rather than serving the foreign Yuan dynasty (1279-1368), he opted to withdraw from public life. To sustain himself, Qian utilized his artistic abilities and became a literati painter, with a particular emphasis on landscapes, historical figures, and flowers.

    The exquisite handscroll Wang Xizhi watching geese (8.9.6), chronicles the life of Wang Xizhi, an esteemed calligraphy master from 303 to 361 CE. Qian employed a purposefully rudimentary "blue-and-green" technique to evoke a surreal ambiance of the bygone era. Wang Xizhi was renowned for drawing inspiration from the natural world, particularly the elegant movements of geese's necks. The artist intentionally prevented a literal interpretation of the pictorial space, underscoring the sense of disconnect felt after the downfall of the Song royal house.

    Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse (8.9.7) is a stunning example of ink-and-paint painting on a paper scroll. Qian, has masterfully captured the moment when the beautiful and graceful Yang Guifei mounts her majestic grey stallion with the assistance of four individuals who are carefully positioned around the horse. The detail in the painting is remarkable, showcasing the intricate clothing worn by Yang and the other individuals. The artwork brilliantly showcases four other individuals dressed in light blue and light green who are accompanying Yang on her journey, adding a sense of depth and movement to the piece. The color red is used meticulously throughout the painting to highlight the crucial elements of the scroll, drawing the viewer's eye around the painting and creating a sense of harmony and balance. The scroll captures the essence of a moment in time with stunning precision and beauty.

    two people standing on a dock over looking a lakeein
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Wang Xizhi watching geese (1295 Handscroll; ink, color, and gold on paper, 27.9 × 1,063.8 cm) (Public Domain)
    people and a horse with a person mounting it
    Figure \(\PageIndex{7}\): Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse (Ink and paints on paper, 30.4 × 110.6 cm) (Public Domain)

    Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322)

    Zhao Mengfu was a scholar-official with exceptional skills in calligraphy and painting. He distinguished his art from that of professional craftsmen by describing it as ‘writing’ rather than ‘painting’, emphasizing the strong foundation of calligraphy in his work. Bathing Horses (8.9.8)is a scroll composition depicting fourteen different horses from different positions. The scroll surrounds a lake with green grass and trees for shade while some horses are receiving a bath in the lake. The exquisite calligraphy in the center along with stamps tells the story of the scroll. The horses may look characterized, however, the horses brought by the Mongols are known for its robust physique, characterized by powerful legs and a sizable head, despite its relatively short stature. These equines typically weigh around 270 kilograms and stand between 122 to 142 centimeters tall. Of particular note are the notably lengthy mane and tail of the Mongol horse, which help distinguish them from other breeds.

    Zhao played a crucial role in defining the trajectory of scholar-painting by firmly establishing its core tenets: revitalization through studying ancient models and applying calligraphic principles to painting. Through his Twin Pines (8.9.9), Zhao strived to accomplish more than mere depiction of nature as it is. He aspired to encapsulate its intrinsic rhythms and imbue rocks and trees with an amplified sense of vitality through his masterful calligraphic brushwork, transcending beyond mere representation.[8] In the close up of Twin Pines (8.9.10) featured the pine tree which was a popular subject among tenth-century recluse artists, symbolizing survival and protection and representing the moral character of the virtuous man. Zhao, who had recently left government service under the Mongols, painted the pines in a tenth-century style to convey his most personal emotions to a friend. 

    several men washing horses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{8}\): Bathing Horses‬ (28.1 x 155.5 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing) (Public Domain)
    scroll with two pine trees and text
    Figure \(\PageIndex{9}\): Twin Pines (Public Domain)
    an ink drawing of two pine trees and rocks
    Figure \(\PageIndex{10}\): Twin Pines, Close-up 1310 (26.8 x 107.5 cm) (Public Domain)

    Ren Renfa (1255-1328)

    Ren Renfa, was born in Qinglong Town, located in the Songjiang district of Shanghai, China. He is known for his masterful brushwork and his ability to capture the essence of his subjects through his paintings, many of which depict landscapes, flowers, and birds. Despite facing several challenges in his personal life, Ren’s artistic talent and dedication to his craft have made him a celebrated figure in Chinese art history. Ren was a highly skilled painter who specialized in creating masterful works of art featuring horses, people, flowers, and birds. His style was reminiscent of the artists from the Tang dynasty, and he was widely regarded as a direct successor to Li Gonglin from the Northern Song dynasty. Ren's paintings of horses were even compared to those of Zhao Mengfu. Despite working under foreign Mongol emperors, Ren fearlessly produced works that contained political undertones. 

    Ren’s most famous works, Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback (8.9.11) was a two-meter scroll featuring five princes on horseback with four attendants, including Li Longji, who later became Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty. One of the princes' is depicted in red at the very center of light-colored horses and assistants. This scroll was held in imperial collections and bore the seals of several emperors. A literati painter Zhang Ning (1426–1496), Ming dynasty, wrote: "Black, Yellow, Red, White, and Mottled Horses. Every horse is worth a thousand taels of gold."[9]

    Another prominent work of Ren’s is Chu Yu Tu (出圉图 – Coming out of the Stable) (8.9.12) depicts three officials from the royal stables leading four horses out of the stable in a distinct Tang style. The individuals in the painting are adorned in Tang-style costumes, which suggests Ren's admiration for Tang dynasty culture. Ren's unique artistic style is also distinguished by the expansive arrangement of people and horses in this remarkable work. At the bottom of the painting, there are inscriptions that provide insight into the artist and the year of creation. The words read, "On the third day of the second month of spring, 1280, [I] made Coming out of the Stable at the Keshi Hall, Recorded by Yueshan Ren Ziming."[10] Additionally, the Qianlong Emperor (Qing dynasty, r. 1736–1795) composed a poem about the painting and left some annotations in the middle. 

    Figure \(\PageIndex{11}\): Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback (18NG WHU Sham, CC BY-SA 4.0)
    three men and three horses
    Figure \(\PageIndex{12}\): A Painting of Leading Horses out of Stable (Public Domain)
    Five Drunken Princes'

    Watch as this centuries-old imperial scroll from the Yuan dynasty is brought to life. ‘Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback’ is a rare surviving work by master painter Ren Renfa (1255 – 1327), depicting a future Tang Dynasty emperor and his four brothers after a joyous night out. Kept in the imperial collection of the Qing Dynasty and transported out of the Forbidden City by the Last Emperor, Pu Yi, this masterpiece then passed through the hands of a host of prominent collectors.


    [1] Needham, J. (1986). Science and Civilization in China: Volume 5, Chemistry and Chemical Technology, Part 1: Paper and Printing. Cave Books, Ltd., 5(1), 208. 

    [2] Paper Industry International Hall of Fame. 

    [3]  Bamboo and rock    

    [4] Cooper. R. (1979). Masterpieces of Chinese art. Todtri, New York. 

    [5] Hearn, Maxwell. “Chinese Painting.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000.

    [6] Ibib

    [7] Qian Xuan, Young nobleman on horseback, handscroll

    [8] Zhao Mengfu: Twin Pines

    [9] Ren Renfa's 'Five Drunken Princes Returning on Horseback 

    [10] Ibib

    8.7: Mongol Empire: Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368) is shared under a All Rights Reserved (used with permission) license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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