THE YÜAN PERIOD—THIRTEENTH AND FOURTEENTH CENTURIES

From the standpoint of civilization the Mongolian dynasty of Yüan brought nothing to China. On the contrary, the foreign elements were absorbed by the ancient culture for, in the final summing-up, the mind will always be stronger than weapons. From the standpoint of painting, however, this period has marked individuality.

The Sung period had been distinctly dominated by the ideals of Southern China. Philosophical inspiration had proven too strong to permit the style of the Northern School to assert absolute sway. In this we must make an exception of Buddhist painting, which,—save in the work of a few chance painters of religious subjects—continues the traditions of the T’ang period, preserving the original character of its coloring. It is true that there were masterpieces to the credit of the Northern School but it had by no means kept to the style of vivid illumination which marked its inception. [15] It had yielded to the influence of the Southern style, was simplified by this contact and took on the austerity and proportion of the South. It would seem as if the painters hastened to add their testimony before the philosophy of the ancient sages should disappear. They strove to give the world perfect images in which the great principles of the universe could be felt vibrating. The only suitable medium for such expression was the technique of the Southern School which they followed with more or less fidelity.

Plate XIV

PLATE XIV. BAMBOOS IN MONOCHROME BY WU CHÊN
Yüan Period. Musée Guimet.

Southern China was at that time the scene of awakened faculties. Shaken to its foundations by the mystic movement—both Taoist and Buddhist—of the T’ang period, the Confucian doctrine had lost ground but had not yet congealed into the rigid official code of a Chu Hsi. While heterodox beliefs still prevailed, all were free to borrow their prophetic and poetic meaning.

When the Mongols came into power, they only carried to completion the work of conservation begun by the Sung emperors. In their contact with China they resembled timid pupils quite as much as conquerors. Once emperor of China, the Mongol Kublai Khan could not but remember his purely Chinese education. Moreover it was quite the Tartar custom to extend their conquests to administrative organization, by establishing a hierarchy of functionaries. The conception of a supreme and autocratic State, paternal in its absolutism, intervening even to the details of private life in order to assure the happiness of the people,—this idea, dear to the literary conservators of the Confucian School during the Sung period, was also too similar to the Tartar ideal to be denied immediate adoption. Heterodox doctrines were formally banished from schools. Rejected with scorn as being corrupt and dangerous, there remained of these doctrines only such residuum as might be found in the independent thought of artists, who were more difficult to control. The magnificent movement of the Sung period began to abate; it produced its last master pieces and gradually waned, until under Ming rule it was to die out completely.

The Yüan epoch, therefore, appears in the light of a transition period connecting the fifteenth century of Ming with the thirteenth century of Sung. From the point of view which interests us, it did nothing but complete a work which had been carried on with energy and success by adherents in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries. It strove to reduce China to a severely regulated State in which all great movements and impulses should be under strict control. It succeeded. It succeeded so well, indeed, that the Europeans who came to know China in the seventeenth century and who rediscovered it so unnecessarily in the nineteenth century, believed it to have been motionless for two thousand years. There is no need to lay stress here upon the absurdity of this prevalent opinion. It has been seen in the past and will be seen in modern times, that the inner travail, the evolution and the diversity are by no means arrested. Like the nations of Europe, China has had its evolution; the causes were analagous, its destiny the same. This is especially felt in the history of its painting. When the potent inspiration of the Southern School began to wane, the style of the North took the upper hand for obvious reasons.

Plate XV

PLATE XV. PAINTINGS OF THE YÜAN OR EARLY MING PERIOD
Style of the Northern School. Collection of R. Petrucci.

Partially civilized barbarians occupied the highest places in the State. They were the controlling party at the imperial court and had usurped the place of the old society, refined, subtle and perhaps too studied, which formed the environment of the last Sung emperors. Despite their naïve efforts and good will, these barbarians could not fathom an art so austere, enlightened and balanced. They were utterly ignorant of such a masterly conception of nature as was evoked in Chinese painting. Monochrome to them was dull. They could admire on trust, but they could not understand. On the other hand, the Northern style with its bold assurance, strong coloring and drawing positive almost to the point of seeming sculptural, was more akin to their mental outlook. There at least they found something which recalled those rugs on which they appear to have exhausted their artistic resources. In a word, they were more accustomed to the Northern style and had brought with them from the Northern regions their own artists, both Chinese and barbarian.