The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011


During the Yuan dynasty, Mongol rulers adopted Tibetan Buddhism as the official state religion. Beyond the capital, however, several long-established East Asian sects—Pure Land, Tiantai, and Chan (Zen in Japanese)—remained the dominant forms of Buddhism among native Chinese. The Pure Land School promised rebirth in the paradise of the Buddha Amitabha; the Tiantai School focused on visualizing the Buddha-nature in all things; and the Chan sect emphasized meditation as the primary means for achieving enlightenment.

By the fourteenth century these sects shared a number of iconographic images, including various manifestations of Guanyin (or Avalokiteshvara), the Bodhisattva of Compassion; and the luohans (or arhats), the spiritual disciples of the Buddha Sakyamuni who served as guardians of the faith. In South China these subjects were painted either in the style of the Song Imperial Painting Academy—that is, large in scale, in mineral colors on silk, and with an emphasis on meticulous execution and detail—or according to another tradition associated mainly with Chan practice. This second style is characterized by intimately scaled works executed with abbreviated, calligraphic brushstrokes in monochrome ink on paper. Few of these paintings survive in China; nearly all extant examples were taken out of the country by Japanese monks and are now preserved in Japanese temples.

An important example of North Chinese painting, the large mural dedicated to the Buddha of Medicine Bhaishajyaguru (ca. 1319), is on view in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery (Gallery 206) at the entrance to the Museum's Asian Art wing.