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

September 28, 2010–January 2, 2011

Daily Life

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.


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).


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.


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.


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.