The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011

Masters of the Late Yuan

By the 1340s, China under the Mongols was descending into anarchy. Bloody struggles for succession and fiscal corruption weakened the government and led to widespread uprisings and open rebellion. Distinguished families withdrew into the countryside to escape rapacious tax collectors, bandits, or contending armies, while many dedicated Chinese officials transferred their support to rebel causes until, in 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang emerged victorious and proclaimed himself the first emperor of the Ming dynasty.

This era of political turmoil fostered one of China's most flourishing periods of artistic expression. Literati painters found inspiration in the orderly landscape paintings of tenth-century scholar-recluses, who several centuries earlier had retreated into the mountains to escape the chaotic conclusion of the Tang era. In the fourteenth century, these visions become far more introverted and personal as scholars lost faith in the immutability of nature. Yuan mountainscapes represent the private dwelling of the artist—a temporary haven where he could lodge his emotions.

On another level, works of art functioned as an important means of communication, becoming part of the intricate web that bound cultivated men together. Whether created in appreciation for a hospitable host, to celebrate a literary gathering, or to commemorate the departure of a colleague, these paintings used encoded imagery—a pair of trees, a bamboo and rock, a secluded dwelling in the mountains—to convey notions of friendship or shared ideals. Forging such bonds was particularly important during the Yuan dynasty, as Mongol rulers generally did not esteem learning and scholars were forced to survive in "impoverished reclusion." At such a time, cultural bonds counted for more than political connections, and a man's literary and artistic accomplishments were more important than his rank in establishing his status.