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

September 28, 2010–January 2, 2011

Decorative Arts and Textiles

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.