The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty

September 28, 2010–January 2, 2011

Religious Life


When the Mongols first entered China in the early thirteenth century, Chan (Zen) was the most prominent of the several forms of Buddhism practiced in China, but under Khubilai Khan, the imperial house converted to Esoteric Buddhism, which had been brought to China by Tibetan lamas. The consequent influence of the Nepali-Tibetan (or, more broadly, Indo-Himalayan) tradition on Buddhist art at the imperial court was transformative; on view in the exhibition are several bronze sculptures that are representative of this new, hybrid style. Also on view are objects that were used during elaborate Esoteric rituals, among them painted mandalas and sculptures of terrifying protective deities.

Outside the imperial court, Chan Buddhism still held sway, especially among the educated classes. Chan emphasized meditation and mindfulness in all activities as the means to achieve enlightenment. The exhibition includes paintings by and portraits of several Chan monks, including the famous Chan master Zhongfen Mingben (1263–1323). Other works on view were produced in North and South China before the Mongol conquest and reunification. These include paintings and sculptures associated with the Pure Land tradition, whose adherents were devotees of the celestial Buddha Amitabha. Also noteworthy is the imagery shared between multiple Buddhist practices, including manifestations of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and representations of the guardians known as arhats, or luohans.


Daoism, an indigenous philosophy and polytheistic religion deeply rooted in Chinese culture, proved useful to the pantheistic Mongols in promoting their intention to rule. Ritual and the quest for immortality—the foundations of Daoist practice—appealed to the shamanistic nomads. The existing orders, which had a strong following, provided vehicles for controlling large segments of the population. The Mongol emperors supported different orders at different times, according to their needs. During periods of political turmoil, both Daoists and Confucian literati sought refuge in Daoist (and Buddhist) temples.

Daoist art from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries reveals an intriguing account of the religious and social environment of Yuan China. During this period, Buddhist and Confucian ideas were incorporated into Daoism as part of a mutual interchange between the two traditions. All these connections are reflected in the visual arts. Daoist adepts and adherents, as expected, created Daoist art, but court artists, artisans, and workshops also received commissions to produce Daoist material. Those involved in making this type of art brought various artistic traditions to their projects, and thus stylistic distinctions often blur and iconographies overlap.

Other Religions

In addition to Buddhism and Daoism, a number of other religions were practiced in Yuan China. They were introduced by peoples of various faiths who came to China as traders or in the service of the Mongols. With the exception of Islam, these religions did not spread among the native population.

In the trading port of Quanzhou, on the South China coast, Indian traders built Hindu temples, fragments of which survive to this day. Followers of Islam produced steles and tombstones inscribed in Arabic.

Nestorian Christianity (spreading from Syria beginning in the fifth century) and Manichaeism (originating in Sasanid Persia) were known in China by the seventh century but retreated following a period of religious persecution in the mid-ninth century; they were later reintroduced by peoples of these faiths under the Mongols. While Nestorian objects can be found in Inner Mongolia and Quanzhou, there are few extant artifacts associated with Manichaeism, which is, however, known to have been practiced in Quanzhou and other port cities. In this exhibition are two rare paintings that appear to be Buddhist but have, through recent scholarship, been identified as Manichaean, demonstrating the syncretism common to Chinese religious belief.