Exhibitions/ The World of Khubilai Khan

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

September 28, 2010–January 2, 2011
Exhibitions are free with Museum admission.

Exhibition Overview

This exhibition covers the period from 1215, the year of Khubilai's birth, to 1368, the year of the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Khubilai Khan, and features every art form, including paintings, sculpture, gold and silver, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, and other decorative arts, religious and secular. The exhibition highlights new art forms and styles generated in China as a result of the unification of China under the Yuan dynasty and the massive influx of craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol Empire—with reverberations in Italian art of the fourteenth century.


The exhibition is made possible by Bank of America.

The exhibition is also made possible by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Dillon Fund, The Henry Luce Foundation, Wilson and Eliot Nolen, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, the Oceanic Heritage Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Florence and Herbert Irving, and Jane Carroll.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities.

The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

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The first section of the exhibition presents objects that relate to daily life in Yuan China. They include examples of men's and women's dresses and ornaments; vessels for ritual purposes and everyday use; and articles associated with travel. In every category, there are objects made using in traditional forms and decoration and others that display influences from Northern and Central Asia that arrived with the Mongols. Nearly all objects in this section are recent archaeological finds from China.

Women's Dress and Ornaments

The key article of formal dress of elite Mongol women was the tall gugu headdress, which varied in regions of the vast Mongol Empire and became more elaborate during the Yuan dynasty. The gugu usually was worn with a voluminous robe featuring decorative bands at the neck and wrists and a train carried by an attendant. Women at court also wore less formal yet richly decorated overjackets, two of which are included in the exhibition.

Men's Dress and Ornaments

The signature garment of Mongol men was a robe with a cummerbund-like waist, probably deriving from Jin-dynasty antecedents. Surviving fragments suggest that such robes were made from various fabrics associated with specific ethnic groups. For the Mongols' elaborate zhisun feast, robes usually made of cloth of gold (nasij) were further embellished with pearls and precious stones.

Less formally, long garments with decorative badges on the chest and back were worn, with belts, for activities such as hunting. The exhibition includes a belt with a jade belt hook, gold plaques for a leather belt, a hat ornament in gold, and other jade objects.

Travel

During the Yuan dynasty, all roads led to Dadu (now Beijing), the city built by Khubilai Khan as the Great Capital of his empire. At regular intervals along this vast network of roads were relay stations where travelers could find food and lodging and purchase supplies. To take advantage of these facilities, the traveler had to carry a pass (fu, pai, or paizi). The passes usually were made of metal, though the material varied depending on the rank of the traveler and the urgency of the mission.

On view in the exhibition are two standard types of passes, as well as pottery figures of a caravan and of a man leading a horse, and a set of gold sheets that covered a saddle.

Ritual Vessels

People in the Yuan period followed the traditional Chinese custom of using ritual vessels to make offerings in religious and ancestral temples.

The exhibition includes several examples of ritual vessels used in North China throughout the Yuan dynasty. Of particular interest are the two bronze vessels donated by the Grand Princess Sengge Ragi (ca. 1282–1332), sister of two successive emperors, to temples in the fief of her husband, the duke of Lu (in eastern Inner Mongolia).

Drinking

The exhibition includes several examples of wine vessels and drinking cups. The ceramic containers were used for transporting wine, the silver bottles for serving it. Porcelain cups of the Yuan period, like the example on view in the exhibition, are often copies after gold and silver prototypes of steppe origin. The glass cup and saucer on view are the only extant examples of their kind from the Yuan dynasty.

Theater

Chinese theater reached its full maturity during the Yuan dynasty. Evolving from short plays, skits, and monologues, Yuan drama became a full-fledged form of multimedia entertainment that offered plot, acting, dialogue, music, and dance. More than nine hundred plays were produced during the Yuan period on subjects that included heroism, traditional morals, the criticism of corrupt officials, romance, and fairy tales.

Actors and actresses were cast in roles categorized by type, among them male lead, female lead, narrator, and comic character. They dressed in elaborate costumes and often wore exaggerated makeup. Theaters in the city were roofed structures with seats arranged in ascending rows around the three sides of the stage. In the countryside, stages were built in temples where actors would perform during religious and seasonal festivals. Scenery comprised large backdrops of decorated hangings with openings for the actors' entrances and exits. Musical accompaniment was provided by a drum, a clapper, and a flute.

Of all forms of entertainment, Yuan drama held the greatest appeal, drawing an audience from both the social elite and the ordinary marketplace crowd. Its lasting influence on subsequent forms of theater in China can still be observed in present-day Chinese opera.

Architecture

When building their capital cities of Xanadu (or Shangdu, the Upper Capital), Zhongdu (the Middle Capital), and Dadu (the Great Capital), the Mongols adopted many Chinese architectural traditions. Not only did their urban plans adhere to Chinese specifications, their style of building stuck closely to existing models, thus asserting both their legitimacy as rulers within the imperial lineage and their perpetuation of fundamental Chinese beliefs and institutions. However, some of the decorative motifs, such as the dragon on a floral ground seen on a column from Shangdu, are those prevalent in Central Asia at the time.

The large stone architectural elements on display in the exhibition were excavated from sites in the Yuan capitals of Shangdu and Zhongdu. The two stone lions, one in Western style and the other a Chinese version, are from houses in Dadu. The wooden house on view, a piece of burial furniture, is precisely modeled after domestic architecture in its construction.

Buddhism

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

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.

The Yuan dynasty marked a revolution in Chinese painting, a change that can be ascribed to two contingent factors. The first was the demise of court patronage, and with it a major source of support and training for professional artists. As a result of this demise, the literati began to paint for one another, collecting and writing on each other's works. Such works now form the major corpus of paintings that survive from the Yuan and later periods.

The dominant artist of the early Yuan dynasty was Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). Some of his most accomplished paintings are on view in the exhibition. Not only a gifted painter, Zhao was also a scholar-writer, and his calligraphy served as a model for generations of artists in the centuries that followed.

The paintings and calligraphies presented span the entire Mongol-Yuan period, from the mid-thirteenth century—when the Mongols were in North China, before the unification of the country under Khubilai—to the end of the Yuan dynasty, when most artists resided in areas around the southern city of Hangzhou.

The Mongols had at their command various textile traditions from throughout their vast empire—gold motifs on a solid background from northern China, vibrant and colorful designs from Central Asia, elegant monochromes from southern China, and overall patterns in gold from Western and Central Asia. The Mongols especially favored the latter, called nasij.

Nasij usually was made in lampas, a weave unknown in China. Early in the Mongol conquest, between 1219 and 1222, the Mongols moved thousands of weavers from the western to the eastern part of their growing empire. They set up workshops for the manufacture of nasij where artisans from various parts of Asia worked together, resulting in the rapid dissemination and modification of textile technology. In the early 1270s under Khubilai Khan, the workshops were moved and consolidated in the capital of Dadu.

Open trade under the Mongols changed textile history, enhancing designs in both the east and the west. For instance, revitalized motifs returned from Central Asia to China, and the vivid patterns of Central Asian textiles that reached Europe clearly inspired Italian textile designs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Yuan dynasty was one of the most innovative periods in the decorative arts of China. The native arts of pottery and lacquer were transformed by the coming together of artistic traditions from the north and the south, while craftsmen brought into China from other areas of the greater Mongol Empire introduced new skills to weaving and metalwork.

Relative to the decorative arts of previous periods, those of the Yuan dynasty can be distinguished by a predilection for three-dimensional form and elaborate surface decoration. The former is demonstrated by high-relief carving on lacquer. Painted decoration was applied to all types of Yuan ceramics, of which the blue-and-white porcelain of Jingdezhen is the best known and appreciated. Both technically and artistically, the decorative arts of the Yuan period remain unsurpassed.

The vitality and imagination found in all media during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) is due in large part to the creative synthesis of cultural and artistic traditions that defines this period in Chinese history. In addition to reuniting artistic traditions from north and south China, the Yuan dynasty also saw the use of Central and West Asian and Indo-Himalayan techniques, styles, and images in the art of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Motifs from one part of Asia were often mixed with others in ceramics, metalwork, and other goods produced at this time.

The interest in framing a surface, and, in particular, the use of a cartouche filled with additional imagery, is one of the hallmarks of the art of the Yuan period, and is shared with the art of the Islamic world.

The large, broad lotus petals often decorating the base of ceramics and metalwork, on the other hand, derive from Indo-Himalayan traditions, in which such motifs are usually found in Buddhist art. Buddhist imagery that mixed traditions from India, Nepal, and Tibet was influential in Yuan-period China. The flowering of this style is usually attributed to a Nepali artist named Anige (1244–1306) who rose to a position of prominence at the court in Dadu (now Beijing). However, it also reflects the decision by Khubilai Khan to patronize and practice the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A similar blending of Indian and Nepali imagery is found in Tibetan art produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Chinese art produced during the Yuan dynasty is characterized by a sharing of themes and motifs between media such as ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer. Many of the shapes found in all media in the exhibition derive from the elegant forms common in south China during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279), others show new forms that were introduced to China from different parts of Asia. Works of art produced in all media share an interest in embellishing the surface that is characteristic of the Yuan dynasty.

Some of the objects displayed in this exhibition have exteriors that have been subdivided using borders or frames. In addition, cartouches, generally filled with additional motifs, often define the surface of an object. In some cases, the shape of a vessel has been pierced to create a greater sense of depth, in others, borders or other parts of the surface are raised, sometimes using beading or a braided design. It remains unclear whether or not this interest in an articulated surface reflects the taste of the Mongols. However, it is worth noting that after the fall of the Yuan dynasty, simple shapes with elegant but flat surfaces once again became common in Chinese decorative arts.

Chinese art produced during the Yuan dynasty is characterized by a sharing of themes and motifs between media such as ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer. Many of the shapes found in all media in the exhibition derive from the elegant forms common in south China during the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1 279), others show new forms that were introduced to China from different parts of Asia. Works of art produced in all media share an interest in embellishing the surface that is characteristic of the Yuan dynasty.

Some of the objects displayed in this exhibition have exteriors that have been subdivided using borders or frames. In addition, cartouches, generally filled with additional motifs, often define the surface of an object. In some cases, the shape of a vessel has been pierced to create a greater sense of depth, in others, borders or other parts of the surface are raised, sometimes using beading or a braided design. It remains unclear whether or not this interest in an articulated surface reflects the taste of the Mongols. However, it is worth noting that after the fall of the Yuan dynasty, simple shapes with elegant but flat surfaces once again became common in Chinese decorative arts.

Entertainers—including acrobats, martial artists, and illusionists—are recorded in early Chinese literature and art, and by the time of the Tang dynasty (618–906) actors had begun to specialize in certain types of roles. The flowering of Chinese theater, however, is often attributed to the Mongol Yuan dynasty and the further development of zaju, a variety performance in which dialogue and song alternate.

The importance of theatrical performances in China from the tenth to the fourteenth century is reflected in the representations of actors and other performers on the walls of tombs, as well as among the ceramic figures placed in these funerary structures. A replica of one of the most spectacular tomb finds, a small stage with five actors that filled the wall in an early twelfth-century tomb in Shanxi Province, is featured in the exhibition, as are several clay sculptures depicting different types of performers.

In addition to comedy, tragedy, romance, and history, Chinese theater, which was also performed in temples, included morality plays and other works featuring exemplars such as the Daoist immortals. Imagery found in paintings, ceramics, metalwork, and lacquer in the exhibition includes these immortals as well as other cultural heroes, such as calligraphers and poets.