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

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

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.

The Northern temperament, reflective, strong and positive, now began to assume mastery over the bewildered reveries of the Southern nature. Things are seen to change. Even the masters who continue the Sung tradition infuse a somewhat more robust quality into their works, but, in so doing, they lose a certain stirring depth which gave the work of their predecessors such an exceptional character. Caught between these two tendencies, Yüan painting takes on new traits, which are perhaps more accessible to European mentality because they are more simple and direct. These observations apply to the general evolution of Chinese painting from the end of the thirteenth to the end of the fourteenth centuries. We must now consider it more in detail, citing by way of illustration a few of the painters who expressed the spirit of the time.

At its inception the Yüan dynasty had inherited the last masters of the Sung period, among them two artists who are recognized as of the first rank. Chao Mêng-fu—known also under the appellation of Tzuŭ-ang—was born in 1254. He was a descendant of the first Sung emperor and held an hereditary post which he resigned at the time the Yüan dynasty came into power. He retired into private life until 1286, then when called back to court as a high functionary, he became a supporter of the new dynasty. Chao Mêng-fu painted landscape as well as figures, flowers and the bamboo, but he is most celebrated for his horses. Numberless paintings of horses are attributed to this master; needless to say the great majority of these are not by his hand.

Plate XVI

Yüan or Early Ming Period. Collection of H. Rivière.

As a landscape painter he seems to have worked in the style of the Southern School, with a fine, simple line in which may still be seen traces of the ancient tradition that extends back to Ku K’ai-chih. This characteristic line is found in the paintings of men and horses where the hand of Chao Mêng-fu is distinguishable. He bequeaths it to the large school which he founded, and, through his pupils, it becomes the inheritance of his imitators in the Ming period. It is more than probable that almost all of the paintings by his pupils, bearing the signature Tzŭ-ang, are attributed to the master, while his own paintings are ascribed to Han Kan, painter of horses in the T’ang period. However, among the numerous works attributed to Chao Mêng-fu, there are a few in which we recognize the vibrant and flexible line which is seen in his landscapes. These paintings bear the signature of Tzŭ-ang, in all probability a false one, but the work of art itself will always be of greater value in determining its authenticity than the most impressive of inscriptions. If the technique and the quality of the line are sufficiently similar to warrant attributing to the same hand the landscape in the British Museum, and any particular painting of horses, this may be regarded as sufficient evidence on which to base our own opinion as to his style.

Amongst his grooms and mounted soldiers, Chao Mêng-fu painted the different races which the wave of Mongolian invasion had swept into China: Chinese from the central provinces, Tartars, Mongols with fur caps, Moslems of a Semitic type from Turkestan, with white turbans and heavy earrings. Whether his subject was the little Tartar horse from the Mongolian plains or the beautiful steeds of ancient Transoxiana, always brought as tribute by way of Khotan to the Chinese court, he gave the life of the horse a singular beauty, portraying him in an equally happy manner whether in the act of racing or in the attitudes of repose. In his mind still dwelt the vision of Sung ideals, which proclaimed the hidden soul of things and valued spirituality and life in a painting. Although we see marked evidence of the Southern style in his work, his paintings are more strongly colored than are those of that school. The influence of the Yüan period begins to make itself felt. It brings out values in colored pigment, emphasizes its violence and paves the way for a new tradition.

Chao Mêng-fu has been compared by Chinese critics to his great predecessor Han Kan. The writings, however, are unanimous in stating that, notwithstanding his undeniable mastery, he lacked something of the vigor of the earlier master. When we attempt to compare the two styles through the aid of paintings of the T’ang period, wherein a reflection of the great animal painter may be sought, the writings appear to be confirmed in attributing a more positive and forceful character to the work of Han Kan or the unknown group of painters around him. But Chao Mêng-fu seems to have possessed in a higher degree the feeling of movement and life, and to have been less hampered in his choice of poses. Centuries of study and of observation had intervened between the great animal painter of the T’ang epoch and his worthy rival of a later period.

Plate XVII

Painting by an unknown artist. Yüan or Early Ming Period. Doucet Collection.

Like Chao Mêng-fu, Ch’ien Hsüan, or Ch’ien Shun-chü, retired from public life at the downfall of the Sung dynasty. He was a member of a group of the faithful over which Chao presided, but, more decided than the latter in his opposition to the new dynasty, he was indignant at his confrère’s defection and refused to follow his example. He lived in retirement, devoting himself to painting and to poetry up to the time of his death. He also continued the Sung tradition under the Yüan dynasty to which, as a matter of fact, he belonged only during the second part of his life. He painted figures, landscape, flowers and birds. His delicate line is not lacking in strength, and he seems to have been especially endowed with a sense of form which approached greatness in its simplicity. Whether the subject is a young prince or a pigeon perched on the summit of a rock from which chrysanthemums are springing, the same dignified and tranquil nobility is asserted with ease. He still used the quiet and restrained coloring of the Sung period and prolonged, without impairing it, the great tradition that a century and a half could not quite efface.

Of Yen Hui we know almost nothing; the books state briefly that he painted Buddhist figures, birds and flowers, and that he was past master in the painting of demons. Nothing is known of the date of his birth or if, by his age and training, he could be classed in the Sung period, but several admirable paintings by him are extant which serve to show how Sung art was still interpreted by exceptional masters in the Yüan period. His line is strong, broader, fuller and more abrupt than that of Chao Mêng-fu or Ch’ien Shun-chü. The quivering vitality that emanates from his pictures is thrilling. Whether the subject is a peony heavy with dew, whose drooping petals presage the approaching end, or a Buddhist monk patching his mantle, the fleeting moment is seized with such intuitive power that prolonged contemplation of the painting creates the impression that it is suddenly about to come to life. There is something sturdier, more startling, less dreamy in these great painters who continue the traditions of Sung art; their work alone demonstrated that tradition could be revived and that ancient China, under the Mongolian dynasty, was still preserving its creative spirit and advancing resolutely into fertile fields.

In Huang Kung-wang and Ni Tsan, we approach a different order of things. Lines began to take on a classical character, to be divided into a series of different types, which painters adopted according to their temperament and requirements, and finally became impersonal and academic. Both of these painters, nevertheless, were under the spell of early influences extending back to the T’ang artists. Through study of these old masters they returned to the use of a full and sometimes vivid color, but kept a profound love of nature, and a fresh and original vision, by which they still perpetuated the inspiration of Sung painting in a new form. With these painters, however, new features appeared. Reds and purples became dominant notes amidst rich greens which set them off and enhanced their brilliancy. The vision of landscape itself is somewhat more realistic and less subtle. In all of these essentials Ni Tsan, who died in 1374, brings us nearer to the Ming period.


Ming Period. British Museum, London.

Simultaneously, though quite apart, marked tendencies of a different character were evident. The old masters of the T’ang period had again returned to favor. The vivid illumination and color distinct from drawing, in these firm and vigorous works appealed to the untutored barbarian. On the other hand, the studies of the Sung period had not been fruitless; therefore when, under these influences, the use of color was resumed, the painters profited by what the practice of monochrome had taught meanwhile. In the Yüan period appear those paintings which are attacked directly with a dripping brush without preliminary drawing, the forms being modeled in the color itself. The Chinese called this painting “without bones,” in other words, deprived of the assistance of line. This procedure was first used by a painter of the Sung period, but it did not take root definitely until the time when the practice of using Chinese ink as a medium to express tones had taught painters how to model forms in color itself, making the structure depend upon color.

Seen as a whole, the Yüan period witnessed the assembling, the concentration, so to speak, of the ardent but scattered inspirations of the great masters of the preceding school. It produced splendid compositions in which the golden age of Chinese painting continued to be manifest. Masters arose and if, in spite of all, they mark a reaction toward the Northern style, seeking rich and vivid color, they give us a vision of beauty that is equal to the work of their predecessors.

Meanwhile grave signs of decadence were apparent. Composition became overladen and complex and began to lose something of the noble simplicity, greatness and supreme charm of the old masters. It was evident that the Yüan painters were working under the eye of the barbarians. They yielded to the taste of the latter for anecdote, for surmounting difficulties and for sentimental detail. Thus far there were only scarcely perceptible shadows and momentary weaknesses, warning signs of decadence; but when such signs are evident, decadence is at hand, and that which the virility of the barbarians had preserved was to be lost through the creed-bound dignity of an academic China, which was imprisoned in a rigid system of rules.