Yuan Dynasty History | Chinese Antiques

Founding of the Yuan Dynasty (Great Mongol State)

The Yuan dynasty was founded by the Mongol Genghis Khan’s grandson Kublai Khan who became the emperor and moved his capital from Karakorum in Mongolia to Beijing in China. It was the first time that foreigners had ruled all of China.

Ruling, Society & Culture of the Yuan Dynasty

The government of the Yuan Dynasty ruled in Chinese fashion however had virtually no Chinese officials. Mongols and other foreigners were given all government positions.

The Chinese nobility were better educated than the Mongol invaders and were not allowed to be involved in government. Therefore they pursued art and literature.

The greatest advances in literature were in the forms of theatre and opera. The theatre was a favourite form of entertainment for the emperors and wealthy families. Western musical instruments were introduced to enrich the Chinese performing arts. 

Advances were made in the fields of cartography, geography, and scientific education.

Active trade also introduced Chinese innovations like printing techniques and porcelain to Europe, while the production of thin glass and cloisonné were brought to China.

Best known of the foreigners believed to have reached China during this period was Marco Polo, whose account of his travels portrays the wealth and splendour of Chinese cities.

A return to past styles by Yuan artists led to the use of expressive calligraphic brushwork in painting to express images of nature and of the mind.

As an amateur painter, Zhao Mengfu studied the styles of earlier masters. As a calligrapher, he explored a diverse range of styles. Combining principles of monumental writing from the Han and Tang dynasties with the fluid, more intimate brushwork of Wang Xizhi (303–361), he produced a new model of standard script for calligraphy and typeface for woodblock printing throughout China.

One of the Four Great Masters of the late Yuan, Ni Zan was widely known for his landscape style, characterised by dry brushwork. He became a model for later literati painters, who admired his noble character and praised his seemingly simple paintings as reflecting inner strength and fortitude.

Yuan was a period of innovation in ceramic production. Sources for new decorative motifs and vessel shapes came from Near Eastern metalwork, Tang dynasty features surviving in Jin dynasty ceramics, and archaic Chinese bronzes and jades.

Porcelains exhibiting a bluish-tone glaze continued to be produced along with new types of porcelains painted with underglaze copper-red and colbalt-blue designs. Some of the most innovative techniques were developed for stoneware with a white slip ground painted with underglaze black-iron pigment and sometimes incised designs, while others were detailed using overglazes, polychrome, and numerous other techniques.

Key Events of the Yuan Dynasty

1279: Yuan Dynasty begins. The Mongols defeat the Song loyalists and the child emperor dies. Northern and Southern China are united for the first time in 300 years. China is part of the Mongol Empire. 

1281: Kublai Khan attempts to invade Japan for a second time. A typhoon destroys his fleet resulting in a costly defeat. 

1294: Kublai Khan dies aged 79.

1301: Yuan artist, a rich and cultured man, Ni Zan is born.

1313: The forth Yuan emperor Buyantu Khan re-establishes traditional imperial examinations for imperial officials to reform corruption and flaws in the empire. 

1331: The bubonic plague pandemic enters the Yuan empire and ravages the population. Millions of people die and the disaster contributes to political instability. 

1344: The Yellow River causes a massive flood that destroys a key, populous region in the centre of the Yuan empire. 

1353: Ni Zan begins 20 years of waterborne wandering. He is forced to flee from his lands during a period of Chinese rebel uprisings. 

1322: Yuan artist Zhao Mengfu dies. His work showed calligraphy was critical to the practice and understanding of the pictorial arts. 

1368: Zhu Yuanzhang reaches the capital of Dadu, the Yuan emperor flees to Mongolia. The Yuan dynasty falls and the Ming Dynasty begins.