The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change

August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011

Noble Recluses and a Withdrawal into Art

In the years immediately following the Mongol conquest, many former Song officials remained loyal to the fallen dynasty and lived in self-enforced retirement as yimin, or "leftover subjects." Expressing their dissent through veiled references in their art, the literati (wenren) produced work that was deeply autobiographical; it is this self-referential aspect of painting that demarcates a new threshold in Chinese art.

Young officials who had never served under the Song also struggled with the harsh new political hierarchy imposed by Mongol rule. Civil service examinations, the traditional means for recruiting talent into the government, were discontinued after 1234 in the north and after 1272 in the south, leaving most of China's educated elite disenfranchised. As a group, the literati were largely ignored by the Mongols; those few who did enter government service often received only minor appointments, as teachers or low-level clerks. The southern Chinese, having resisted the Mongol invasion the longest, faced systematic discrimination, including inequitable quotas on the examination system when it was reinstated in 1313. Confronted with absolutist policies and prejudicial treatment, many southern scholars withdrew from politics and lived in humbled circumstances or semiretirement—a lifestyle that afforded them the time to pursue self-cultivation and self-expression through the arts.