Yuan Dynasty (1271 - 1368)

The Southern Sung period, for all its cultural glories, is regarded by historians as an age of weakness in the Chinese state, characterized by retrenchment in area and influence, humiliating military impotence, and a mood of nostalgia bordering on escapism. The conquest of China by the Mongols put China completely under foreign rule for the first time. The political policies of the Mongol rule did not have a widespread interruption to the arts in China. Superficially, the Mongol ruling elite adopted Chinese customs and habits. Painters liked to depict scenes of the ruling elite's life of horse racing and hunting. Portrayals of horses had served for centuries as pictorial metaphors for the character and special concerns of the Chinese literati and scholar-officials and could carry a variety of auspicious wishes and other messages.

Khubilai Khan, first Yuan Emperor, 
Shizu (
元世祖 ), 1215-1294

Empress Chabi ( 察必皇后 ), Consort of Shizu

by anonymous painter

by anonymous painter


Aristocratic mural painting and portraits of Genghis Khan & Kublai


During the Yuan Dynasty, painters turned more and more to express spirit and soul in their art. Scholar artists became the leading figures in painting, and they emphasized the expressive qualities inherent in brush and ink as a means of portraying personality, thought, and emotion. Their painting was characterized by simplicity, transcendence, and elegance. Court patronage of art was mainly limited to the Mongolian traditional arts such as textiles, jewelry, metalwork, and etc. Outside the court, cultural creativity in several of the arts, including calligraphy and painting, lost the traditional court patronage and set the stage for rise of scholar-amateurs (literati) to the center of the painting world. 



Zhao Meng-Fu ( 趙孟頫 ) 1254-1322

Zhao Meng-Fu was a descendent of Sung Dynasty's imperial clan. Nevertheless, he became a government official and served under five emperors of the Yuan Dynasty. He tried his best to help Han people and worked to reinstitute the civil service examination system. In spite of his high position later on, he had always wanted to retire from public life which was reflected in his reclusive style landscape paintings.



By the middle Ming Dynasty, Zhao Meng-Fu, Huang Gong-Wang, Wang Meng, and Wu Zhen were widely known as the Four Great Masters of Yuan painting. It was until the late Ming Dynasty that Dong Chi-Tsun asserted that Zhao should own a higher position. He crowned Zhao above the others and added Ni Zan to the Four Great Masters of Yuan painting. (Earlier groupings may have included Gao Ke-Gong. Many sources state that Dong intentionally substituted Zhao with Wu Zhen or Ni Zan because of Zhao's dishonorable collaboration with the Yuan court, or perhaps Dong's envy of Zhao's achievements in calligraphy.) 



Zhao Meng-Fu, literati painting, his calligraphy-based painting techniques, his influence on the Four Great Masters of Yuan painting, and Huang Gong-Wang's scroll of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains


Zhao was a versatile calligrapher and painter who cast a strong influence on his followers since his time. He was good at all five major styles of calligraphy and painting horses, flowers and birds, landscapes, figures, and many other genres. His artistic assertions played a vital role in the development of Chinese calligraphy and literati painting.

Zhao studied carefully earlier painting models of Dong Yuan and others and incorporated the unique Chinese multi-vanishing point perspectives (including foreshortening and level-distance) to create somewhat controversial and influential masterpieces. He wrote that his paintings, though seemingly quite simple and carelessly done, were based on earlier masterpieces and would be appreciated by connoisseurs, but not ignoramuses.

Elegant Rocks and Sparse Trees ( 秀石疏林圖 )

Autumn Colors On the Chiao and Hua Mountains ( 鵲華秋色圖 )

Horse Herding in Autumn Countryside ( 秋郊飲馬圖 )

Mind Landscape of Xie You-Yu ( 謝幼輿丘壑圖 )

Mounted Official人騎圖 )

Training the Horse ( 調良圖 )

Bamboo (attributed to Zhao Meng-Fu)

Portrait of Su Dong-Po

Arhat in Red Robe ( 紅衣羅漢圖 )



Another trait of Yuan literati landscapists is that they did not hide the process of their painting, but rather allowed the traces of their brushes to be visible, going considerably further in this direction than painters of the Sung Dynasty.
For instance, Huang Gong-Wang painted darker brushstrokes over lighter ones, and drier brushstrokes over wetter ones, to create richer textures and a stronger sense of tactile surface in his landscape works.


Transition from Sung style painting to literati painting during Yuan Dynasty

Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains ( 富春山居圖 ) by Huang Gong-Wang



Huang Gong-Wang ( 黃公望 ), 1269-1354

As an innovative landscapist after Zhao Meng-Fu, Huang Gong-Wang was among the Four Great Masters of Yuan painting along with Ni Zan, Wang Meng, and Wu Zhen. He was good at music and poetry and was a teacher of Daoist philosophy. However, he started painting later in his life and developed his landscape style around age 50. 

Huang Gong-Wang was the eldest and the most prominent of the four great landscapists of the Yuan Dynasty and he probably exercised more influence than any other painter on the development of the so-called "School of Chinese Literati Painting" during the Ming and Ching Dynasties. 

Huang decisively altered the course of landscape painting, creating models that would have a profound effect on landscapists of later centuries. He utilized modular construction in painting landscape masses with composites of dynamically interacting parts by infusing geometric or ovoid and arc objects repeatedly at some sacrifice of pictorial or descriptive values. His schematic and dynamic formalism had great influences on Ni Zan, Dong Chi-Tsun ( 董其昌 ), and the Four Wangs of the early Ching Dynasty.

Generally speaking, the works of Huang Gong-Wang may be divided into two stylistic types. In one type of painting, he used light purple color, whereas the other type was executed in black ink only, the portrayal of the surfaces of rocks and trees being very much simpler in structure and technique than the first type. 

His famous essays "Secrets of Landscape Painting ( 寫山水訣 )" include theoretical pronouncements and techniques on brushstrokes, ink, colors, adding alum to silk and so on.

Huang spent the remainder of his life in the Fuchun mountains near Hangzhou. In his famous Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains, he utilized Zhao Meng-Fu's method of interweaving thick and dry brushstrokes to create visually tangible forms. He painted darker brushstrokes over lighter ones, and drier brushstrokes over wetter ones, to create richer textures and a stronger sense of tactile surface. 


Huang Gong-Wang, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng


Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains ( 富春山居圖 )

Flash version: http://www.npm.gov.tw/zh-tw/collection/selections_02.htm?docno=63&catno=15&pageno=3

This long handscroll by Huang Gong-Wang is among the most famous paintings in Chinese history. It is considered an epitome of literati landscape painting and has enormous influence on later ages.

Depicted in this handscroll is an idealized panorama of the Fuchun mountains, west of Hangzhou, to which Huang returned in his later years. Beginning with a vast expanse of river scenery at the right, we move on to the mountains and hills, then back to areas of river and marsh that end with a conical peak. We finally come to the end of our wandering through the landscape as it ebbs out in the distant ink-wash hills over the water. The composition was first laid out in light ink and then finished with successive applications of darker and drier brushwork. Sometimes shapes were slightly altered, contours strengthened, and texture strokes or tree groups added here and there. Finally, brush dots were distributed across the work as abstracted accents. Buildings, tree limbs, and foliage are reduced to the simplest of forms as Nature has been translated into the artist's terms of brush and ink.

According to his inscription, Huang wrote that he created the design in a single outburst of energy in one sitting. He worked on the painting on and off when the mood struck him from about 1347 to 1350. This representation of the Fuchun mountains was painted for a fellow Daoist named Master Wu-Yung and became Huang's greatest surviving masterpiece. Wu-Yung ( 無用 ), literally Worthless, was a facetiously self-deprecating sobriquet of the Daoist man. Worrying that someone else might get the painting, Wu-Yung urged Huang to inscribe in advance, in contrast to the convention that Chinese always inscribe on painting when or after it's finished.

Great Mountain of Fuchun ( 富春大嶺圖 )

Stone Cliff at the Pond of Heaven ( 天池石壁圖 )

Clearing After Sudden Snow ( 快雪時晴圖 )

Snow Scene of Nine Mountains ( 九峰雪霽圖 )





Ni Zan ( 倪瓚 ) 1301 or 1306 -1374

Ni Zan was born in a wealthy land-owning family in Jiangsu Province. He was by nature aloof and arrogant and had mysophobia. The eccentric Ni Zan built his Pure and Secluded Pavilion ( 清閟閣 ) where he kept collections of antiques, paintings, and calligraphy and enjoyed the company of famous scholars and poets of refined tastes according to his judgment.

Already by 1330s, series of floods, droughts, and consequent famine and peasant revolts brought this ideal existence to an end as the Yuan Dynasty began to unravel.  For twenty years, beginning in 1351, Ni Zan wandered with his family through the southeast China, living in a houseboat or staying with friends and acquaintances, and often repaid their hospitality with his paintings.

In his earlier paintings, he often painted widely separated riverbanks rendered in sketchy and ink monochrome brushwork  and foreground trees silhouetted against the expanse of water. His sparse landscapes rarely represent people and defy many traditional concepts of Chinese painting. Many of his works hardly represent the natural settings they were intended to be depicted. Indeed, Ni Zan used his art as a medium of expression. In 1364, he said I use bamboo painting to write (note) out the exhilaration in my breast, that is all. Why should I worry whether it shows likeness or not? (note: Many Chinese brush painting masters often proclaim they are "writing objects" with brushes since most of the brush painting techniques were derived from the methodologies of Chinese calligraphy brushstrokes. Like all of the Four Masters of the Yuan painting, Ni Zans brush techniques originated from calligraphy.)

Ni Zan landscapes truly bring out the great importance of brush work in Chinese landscape painting, especially that of the literati painting tradition. His minimalism turns every single brush stroke into an emotional statement that cannot be ignored. The almost compulsive repetition of themes throughout his career has never led his art to lose its originality and emotional vigor. Scholars read Ni Zan's paintings of simple, almost barren, and unpeopled landscapes as expressive of a longing for a simpler, cleaner, and peaceful world. 

Already shortly after Ni Zan's passing, the cultural levels of the families in Jiangnan, the southeast region of China, were evaluated according to whether or not they owned one of his works.

Six Gentlemen六君子圖 )

Rongxi Studio容膝齋圖 )

Woods and Valleys of Mount Yu ( 虞山林壑圖 )




Chien Shuan ( 錢選 ) ca. 1235 - before 1307 (Pinyin: Qian Xuan)

Chien Shuan was one of a group of poets and cultivated scholars active in the late Sung Dynasty and early Yuan Dynasty known as the Eight Talents of Wuxing. A renowned flower and bird painter, he was also good at painting landscape and figures. He often used heavy mineral pigments with line-and-color-wash technique in his "blue-and-green" landscape style.

Returning after Resigning ( 歸去來辭圖

Squirrel on the Peach Stem ( 桃枝松鼠圖 )

Shu Miao Leaving the Calf ( 時苗留犢圖 )

Yang Guifei Mounting a Horse ( 楊貴妃上馬圖 )

Young Nobleman on Horseback 

Eight Flowers ( 八花圖 )




Lee Kan ( 李衎 )

Lee Kan ( 李衎 ), Zhao Meng-Fu ( 趙孟頫 ), and Gao Ke-Gong ( 高克恭 ) were the three famous bamboo painters in the early Yuan Dynasty. Lee Kan, a native of Hebei Province, was a Grand Academician at the Hall of Scholarly Worthies. A skilled painter of bamboos, he observed bamboos thoroughly and published manuals and essays on painting bamboos that became widely popular. The late Zhang Da-Chian ( 張大千 ) referred Lee Kan as the best bamboo painter in his published essays.

Bamboos & Rocks




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