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Chronology of China


VI. The Yuan Dynasty

In 1276, the Mongolian forced the Southern Song into surrender and officially became the first grasslands nationality who ruled the whole mainland China. The rulers of the Yuan Dynasty divided the population into four classes with the Mongolian occupying the highest rank, and then the second rank Semu (people with colored eyes, including Central Asian allies of the Mongols, mostly Uighurs and other Turks), the third rank Han Chinese (the northern Chinese formerly ruled by the Jin Dynasty), and the lowest rank the Southerners (the southern Chinese formerly ruled by the Southern Song Dynasty). The Han Chinese lived of low social status. The rulers did not set up the imperial examination system at the beginning of Yuan Dynasty; therefore, except for very few Han Chinese reaching the highest-post in the government, most Han Chinese could only serve as petty officials at that time. For the racial policies that severely discriminated against Han Chinese and restricted them from ascending the civil service ladder, most literati who would not to cooperate with Mongolian had to earn a living by teaching, practicing medicine, divination, and selling paintings. Drama writing was another source of revenue for them, which greatly promoted the prosperity of drama literature in Yuan Dynasty. On the other hand, as a vehicle for expressing literati's thought and feeling, literati painting became more popular as well. Since there was no imperial painting academy in the Yuan Dynasty, in addition to a few professional painters who worked for the court and some high-ranking literati officials, most painters were amateur literati painters outside the court. The literati painting was mainstream is this period.


At the beginning of Yuan Dynasty, there was a group of adherent painters who lived in southern China and who often expressed their nostalgia of the old Song Dynasty in their paintings. Gong Kai, Zheng Sixiao and Qian Xuan were the representatives among them. Gong Kai used to serve the Song government as a minor official before the Yuan proclaimed a dynasty, and after that, his only sources of income were the sale of paintings and calligraphy. His main themes were ghosts and bony horse.

Watering Horses on Autumn Suburb, Zhao Mengfu

In his famous painting "Zhong Kui Traveling with his Sister"(a collection of the Freer Gallery of Art in USA), Zhong Kui (a vanquisher of ghosts and evil beings) and his sister are being carried by several demons who are pictured as gangly, grotesque creatures wearing only loin clothes or barely more than skin and bones. In another famous painting "Emaciated Horse", the horse he depicted is almost a mere skeleton with a slouchy head, seemingly containing deep consciousness of suffering and sorrow with the last pieces of his shattered dignity. These images of non-human and eccentric horse can be said a portrayer of Gong Kai's resentment after the ending of Song. Zheng Sixiao was an imperial student at the end of Song Dynasty, as well as a Song loyalist. After Song Dynasty ended, he swore not to associate with the northerners, and no matter when he sit or lied down, he always faced the south. He called himself "Suo Nan" (toward the south). In his masterpiece "Ink Orchid", there is no earth under the orchid leaves. When people asked him why not paint the earth, he answered, "don't you know the earth has been occupied?" Qian Xuan also sold paintings for living in Yuan Dynasty. He once wrote poem to express his opinion as "regardless of the rise and fall of dynasties, I drink with my paintings". The "Dwelling in the Fuyu Mountains" is his representative landscape painting, and he was also good at flower-and-bird painting. On most of his paintings there are poem inscription and postscript combining the poem and painting, which adopted by later painters gradually.

The former Song capital of Hangzhou was a center with many scholars and literati gathered, including the famous painter Zhao Mengfu. Zhao Mengfu was a descendant of the Song Dynasty's imperial family. After the conquest of Hangzhou by Mongols, Zhao had stayed at home for ten years and only associated with some friends who also liked poetry, calligraphy and painting. In 1286 when Kublai Khan sent officials to the south to recruit for scholars, Zhao was recommended to pay an audience with Kublai Khan at the Yuan capital of Dadu. From then on he chose a path different from most Southern Song adherent painters. In 1316, Zhao Mengfu was offered the position of President of the Hanlin Academy, the most prestigious body of scholars in China, and almost the highest position a Han Chinese could reach in Yuan Dynasty. Taking advantage of his position, Zhao collected a large number of masterpieces of the Tang Dynasty and Northern Song Dynasty, and from which he gained inspiration to get away from the Southern Song painting style. He had made contributions to landscape painting, figure painting, as well as saddle-and-horse painting. Derived from the ancient style of Tang Dynasty and the magnificent atmosphere of Dong Yuan and Ju Ran's painting, he created outstanding landscape painting like "Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains", a realistic work created to comfort his friend's homesick. As a milestone in the history of Chinese landscape painting, it mixed sceneries of the northern mountains and the southern waters, with both characteristics of ink landscape and blue-and-green landscape, which had greatly influenced the Four Masters of Yuan Dynasty and later painters. His important landscape works include "You Yu (Xie Kun) Sitting by the Hills", "Dongting Dongshan Mountain", "The Rivers and Overlapping Peaks", "Scenery at Wuxing", and "Water Village". For the figure painting and saddle-and-horse painting, as reflected in his "Watering Horses on Autumn Suburb" and "Bathing Horses", Zhao combined the majesty in the Tang Dynasty and the elegant in the Song Dynasty, accurately and vividly displaying a great variety of brushwork. "A Man and His Horse in the Wind" that depicted a man and a horse in a blowing gale, has the feature of northern nomadic horse painting. "Lohan in a Red Robe" shows the influence of Lu Lengqie (Tang Dynasty painter who was good at Lohan painting). In his "A Sheep and A Goat", the sheep lifts its head up high, while the goat lowers its head down, which was said to symbolize the relationship between Mongols and Chinese in Zhao's mind. If we removed the inscription between these two creatures, the interaction will be more obvious. His painting of dry wood, bamboo and stone refers back to an early mode of the literati painting in Northern Song Dynasty by emphasizing on artistic conception and focusing on individual elements of the painter. It was Zhao Mengfu that first raised the famous theory of "integrating calligraphic skills into painting", "calligraphy and painting are basically the same", asserting the equivalence of painting and calligraphy through calligraphic brushwork and the placement of inscriptions on the picture surface. We can see how his opinion is reflected in his "Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees". It is worth mentioning that although Zhao Mengfu was belittled and despised in his whole life by Han Chinese for taking the position offered by Yuan rulers, he did not help Mongols to bully the Han Chinese; on the contrary, he introduced the Confucian moral standards to the Mongolian government with all his force; he made recommendations for reforming the monetary system; he assisted to depose the Semu prime minister Sang Ge, who was notorious for his corruption; he proposed that literati and scholars should have the right to be immune from corporal punishment. This tension between Zhao's political career and his personal intention would find its clearest expression in his artistic pursuits. Though Zhao Mengfu had parted company with Qian Xuan politically, in the concept of art, the two were like-minded. They both sought to convey a "spirit of antiquity" (Gu Yi) and a "atmosphere of scholar" (Shi Qi), which was greatly appreciated by the literati painters in Yuan Dynasty. Zhao Mengfu was not the only painter in his family. His wife Guan Daosheng is noted as the first female painter in China, his son Zhao Yong was good at painting, and his grandson Wang Meng is one of the "Four Masters of Yuan Dynasty".

Orchid, Zheng Sixiao


There was another literati painter who was from Jiangnan in the early Yuan Dynasty. Ren Renfa was a great painter as well as a great water conservancy expert. He was in charge of the construction of projects like Wusong River, Yellow River, Lian Lake, Daying Port, Wunijing and seawall engineering. He is best known for his paintings of figure and saddle-and-horse, which was one example in a tradition begun by Han Gan in the Tang dynasty. His representative works include "Zhang Guolao Meeting with Emperor Minghuang" and "Two Horses". The "Two Horses" depicted one fat horse, which was said to be a metaphor of corrupt official, and one skinny horse, a metaphor of honest official. This kind of symbolic implication was not uncommon for paintings in Yuan Dynasty.


Among the northern painters in the early Yuan Dynasty, Gao Kegong had the highest reputation. He was Uighurs, a Semu, and a high rank official. His early career was characterized by wet brushwork of Mi Fu's cloudy mountain, while later in his career he switched to the dry brush of Dong Yuan and Ju Ran. The "Cloud Resting on the Mountain" is his representative work. Another northern painter Li Kan is famous for his bamboo. Li followed the style of Su Shi and Wen Tong, and record his observation of different bamboos and painting skills in his album "Guidance on Bamboo" (Zhu Pu). He worked his way up from a minor official to be minister of the Ministry of Civil Personnel and Secretary of the Jixian Grand Council in Yuan; and along with Zhao Mengfu, he was one of the two highest-ranking Han Chinese painters in Yuan government. However, since the north had been ruled by foreign rulers for a long time, people were not so hard on the northern Chinese who served in the Yuan's government as on the southerner.

In the late Yuan Dynasty, Emperor Renzong reintroduced the traditional imperial examinations for prospective officials; Emperor Yingzong and Emperor Wenzong carried out positive cultural policies; however, the imperial examination system was still biased in favor of Mongols and Semus, while the low social position of Han Chinese was unchanged. In this period most of literati painters were mainly in the Jiangsu and Zhejiang region, such as the so-called "Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty", Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan and Wang Meng. The four painters who lived and worked at approximately the same time were all skilled in landscape painting ,and were all influenced by Zhao Mengfu. Although they had different backgrounds and experiences, their unappreciated situation was similar.

Huang Gongwang was the oldest of the Four. He used to be a clerk of the Zhejiang investigation official, but was put in prison for involving in his boss's corruption case; though he was found innocent and released later, he had been disillusioned and gave up his official career, and made a living by divination and teaching as a Taoist. He pioneered the use of light ocher to color his landscape paintings. Though having once followed the model and techniques of great painters such as Dong Yuan and Ju Ran, Huang himself was an innovative landscape painter who created his own style. The painting "Life in Mount Funchun" was a product of more than three years of weaving together the autumn sceneries along the Fuchun River. When Huang Gongwang finished this work, he was already 82. It is a roll of 6 meters long, with scenes changing from mountains and hills to the river and marsh and then to mountains and peaks again. The brushstroke generates a calligraphic effect, and achieves a artistic state of blandness or the Neutral.

There were two stories about Wu Zhen: he lived by divination and was poor all his life; or, his family ran a shipping business and he never worried about money. About his personality there was no dispute: he was aloof from politics and material pursuits as long as he lived. Wu was good at using wet ink to produce rich textures of mountains, rocks and trees, creating a lush and misty effect. The "Fisherman" is his representative work.

Ni Zan was born into a wealthy family in Wuxi. For heavy taxes imposed on the rich landowners of the region, he distributed all of his possessions to his friends in his fifties, and started to live a vagabond life from then on. He stayed in Zen temple or at a friend's home, and in his old age, he moved into a houseboat traveling throughout the relatively peaceful southeast. Generally in Ni Zan's painting there is pavilion but no people, water but no boat, without any further suggestion of human presence, and elemental landforms with a somber quiet throughout. His composition seems fragile but contains internal balance, while his brushstroke seems simple but is difficult to imitate. The frustrated literati loved his works, and regarded him as a paragon of literati painters. His representative works include "Autumn Clearing over a Fishing Lodge", "Six Gentlemen", and "Bamboo, and Elegant Stone", etc.

Another painter Wang Meng is rather special. He came from an elite family with both of his grandfather and uncle were great painters, which was probably a reason why he was not as determinative on political career as the other three masters. During the turmoil from the end of Yuan Dynasty to the beginning of Ming Dynasty, he constantly worked for the government as a minor official in both dynasties. About his landscape painting, the mountains and stones are usually dense and distorted; however, they appear not crowded by following an inherent order; such feature can be found in his "Dwelling in the Qingbian Mountains", "Moving to Gezhi Mountain", and "Dwelling in Seclusion in the Summer Mountains". In the early Ming Dynasty, in order to consolidate his political power, Zhu Yuanzhang had the Senior Grand Councilor Hu Weiyong arrested and executed on charges of treason, and by using this as an opportunity to purge his government, executed more than thirty thousand people. Wang Meng was put in prison for this reason and shortly after that, he died in prison.

Being different from the predecessors who built achievement on their last generation's shoulder consistently, the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty developed the movement pioneered by Zhao Mengfu, which was studying directly from the ancient they chose from the entire art history; imitation of nature was replaced by expressing the artist's temperament and spirit; the gap between the literati painting and non-literati painting began to form.


Due to the complicated situation of races, classes, and social contradictions in Yuan Dynasty, painters were mostly willing to choose landscapes, dry woods, bamboos and stones, flower-and-bird to express their feelings; although there were a few superb figure painters, but they didn't change the relatively shrinking situation of this painting genre, nor became a significantly trend. As a court painter at the beginning of Yuan Dynasty, Li Guandao depicted in his "Kublai Khan on A Hunting Expedition" Kublai Khan in a lambskin white coat, holding the reins on a black horse and hunting in an open land. The Han Chinese Liu Guandao painted were usually idle literati lying on bed with their belly exposed, a symbol of the Han Chinese ignoring and being ignored by the outside world under the rule of Mongols. Another figure painter Yan Hui was good at Buddhist and Taoist painting. The "Portrait of Immortal Li" collected in the Chion-ji temple in Kyoto is his representative work, in which the immortal Li looks ragged, ugly, but with a pair of eyes as sharp as hawk's eyes, as if they can penetrate the heart. Yan Hui is very popular in Japan, and had a great influence on the painting of the Japanese Muromachi era.

Portrait of Immortal Li, Yan Hui


There was always passive resistance toward the Mongolian rulers among Han Chinese, however, it was the economic bankruptcy that brought an end to this dynasty: the smelting iron industry which had supported the economy in Song Dynasty was devastated in Yuan Dynasty, and was never recovered again; the taxation system was a mess; too much money was printed and it caused inflation; the population dropped from 120 million to 60 million. People living in dire poverty in late Yuan rebelled everywhere, until a poor farmer from the bottom of society controlled China again.


















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