Following a century of Mongol domination, the Chinese regained control of the empire under the leadership of Zhu Yuanzhang, a rebel of peasant origins who founded the Ming dynasty (1368–1644). Zhu ruled China as the Hongwu emperor from 1368 to 1398. Basing his capital in Nanjing (it moved to Beijing in 1421), he began to rebuild the central bureaucracy, reinstate imperial institutions, and initiate policies of political and cultural expansion.
But the first Ming emperor's humble background left him deeply suspicious of the scholar-gentry class, particularly those living in the region around Suzhou, which had been the seat of power of a rival warlord. As the aging emperor became more despotic, literati artists were executed or imprisoned in increasing numbers, making government service risky. As a result, many scholar-officials either declined appointments or found reasons to retire. Such men found inspiration in the reclusive imagery and emotive brush styles of the late Yuan masters.
Both Song Ke (1327–1386) and Wang Fu (1362–1416), the two artists featured in this gallery, served in the early Ming government. Song was originally recruited to be a calligrapher-in-waiting in the capital but was later transferred to a minor post in western Shaanxi Province, where he died. Wang Fu, who went to Nanjing about 1378 to seek employment, was subsequently banished for twenty years to a frontier post near Datong, Shanxi Province. Only with the accession of the Yongle emperor in 1403 was Wang again recruited to a post in the capital. Both artists explored and extended artistic styles developed during the preceding Yuan dynasty.