During the Yuan dynasty, China—for the first time in its long history—was completely subjugated by foreign conquerors and became part of a larger political entity, the vast Mongol empire. Ironically, during this century of alien occupation, Chinese culture not only survived but was reinvigorated.
Lacking experience in the administration of a complex empire, the Mongols gradually adopted Chinese political and cultural models. Ruling from their capital in Dadu (also known as Khanbalik; now Beijing), the Mongol Khans increasingly assumed the role of Chinese emperors. During the 1340s and 1350s, however, internal political cohesion disintegrated as growing factionalism at court, rampant corruption, and a succession of natural calamities led to rebellion and, finally, dynastic collapse.
In spite of the gradual assimilation of Yuan monarchs, the Mongol conquest imposed a harsh new political reality upon China. As a group, the literati were largely ignored by the Mongols; those few who did enter government service often received only minor appointments, either as teachers in local schools or as low-level clerks. Southern Chinese, having resisted the Mongol invasion the longest, faced a conscious policy of discrimination, leading many scholars to withdraw from public life to pursue their own personal and artistic cultivation, often under the aegis of the Buddhist or Daoist religions. Drawing on the scholar-official aesthetic of the late Northern Song, Yuan literati painters no longer took truth to nature as their goal but rather used painting as a vehicle for self-expression. In the hands of highly educated scholar-artists, brushwork became calligraphic and assumed an autonomy that transcended its function as a means of creating representational forms.
Department of Asian Art. “Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368).” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/yuan/hd_yuan.htm (October 2001)