History of Chinese Calligraphy – Modern Period: Cultural Confrontation and Exchange During Yuan Dynasty (元朝/Yuan chao/Yüan Ch’ao)


The Yuan Dynasty (元朝/Yuan Chao/Yüan Ch’ao): Foreign Rulers and Sinicization

The conquests of Genghis Khan are known throughout the world. What is lesser known is the impact that the short-lived Mongol empire would have on China. Although the Mongols were able to conquer one of the largest regions in history, stretching from the Korean Penninsula to Ukraine by 1259 BCE, the size of their empire made it basically ungovernable for an essentially nomadic peoples. The rapid fragmentation of the Mongol Empire forced the Mongolian tribes back toward the east, and they were able to maintain political control over a much smaller region for the next hundred years. The region they held included most of modern-day China, Mongolia and Korea.

Kublai Khan was heralded as the first Emperor of the Yuan Dynasty, and the next century was typified by a tense political and social factionalization in which the remnants of the Song ruling class influenced, and was influenced by, their foreign conquerors. The Mongols were unaccustomed to ruling in a centralized fashion, and came to rely on the bureaucratic expertise of the Han people in order to retain their political power in the region. Implicit in this social relationship was a gradual hybridization of the two cultures. Numerous other social groups, including Muslims, Christians, Uighurs and many others were integrated into the hierarchy of the Yuan. This apparent cosmopolitanism was tempered by a very rigid class structure that placed these social groups in specific hierarchical relationships. Han adherents to Buddhism (the officical religion of the Yuan) and the older Chinese values of Confucianism and Taoism were thus placed in a complicated position of being the main power-base of the ruling Mongol elite in China, while being united with other disparate groups in a position of essential colonization.

The Scholarship Class in Retreat

The Chinese scholarly culture of the Yuan was deeply affected by the institution of an essentially foreign government. In the early Yuan, memories of the Song were still strongly felt. The conflict between cultures was often played out in individual ideological conflicts. Scholars and officials felt the need to ensure that the populace was effectively governed, that the Chinese culture was maintained and that their individual conduct was in accordance with the demands of their ancient moral Confucian, Buddhist and Taoist principles. These concerns were often placed in opposition with each other. The archetype of the withdrawn scholar is a common one in the Yuan.

Arts During Yuan Dynasty: From Calligraphy as Court Art to Individual Art

Imperial sponsorship and promotion of the arts in the Yuan was lesser than at any earlier time in the dynastic period. Nevertheless, the hundreds of years of pre-existing artistic tradition meant that the Chinese artistic culture continued through Mongol rule, albeit in more private contexts. Court painting was largely restricted to religious and directly political themes: portraits and other depictions of the Mongol rulers were common, as were paintings with Buddhist themes. Outside the court, however, the literati arts tradition found new focus in attempting to create works that, one the one hand, spoke to their disenfranchisement, and on the other hand spoke to their desire to maintain their culture.

Zhao Meng Fu was a renowned calligrapher and painter of the Yuan. His work clearly expresses the reserved seclusion to which he resigned himself after briefly holding a position in the Yuan regime. Focusing not on the refined, exacting standards of court portraiture and painting, Zhao’s work was simple, hearkening back to styles of centuries past. This conscious historicism reinvigorated the Chinese artistic tradition as a personal art pursued for its own sake.