“Man Riding a Horse” (1296), a Yuan dynasty handscroll by Zhao Mengfu, in “The World of Khubilai Khan,” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
Welcome to Xanadu!
Chinese art of the Yuan Dynasty at the Metropolitan.
By Christopher Benfey
published in SLATE Magazine
Unidentified artist, Khubilai Khan as the First Yuan Emperor, Shizu, China, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Album leaf; ink and color on silk. Lent by National Palace Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Nomadic Mongols, under their ruthless warlord Ghengis Khan, swept into China during the early 13th century. One might have expected them to impose a bland cultural uniformity on their mind-boggling empire, which stretched from Mongolia and Central Asia to the Middle East, the Caucasus, and Russia. But, according to the Venetian trader Marco Polo, the Mongol rulers were surprisingly tolerant of the diverse cultural and religious practices of their polyglot populace. When Ghengis's grandson Khubilai subdued the long-resisting Southern Song region, he united all of China under one rule, inaugurating the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). The arts flourished amid the diverse cultural pressures of this brief regime, the subject of a lavish exhibition at the Met titled "The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty." Based on his own reading of Polo, spiked by a large dose of opium, Coleridge imagined Khubilai's "flashing eyes, his floating hair," but this official portrait, a sketch for the gold-flecked tapestries that the Mongols preferred to paintings, suggests the attentive eyes of a wily and self-composed administrator.
Post With Dragons on a Floral Ground, Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). Stone. Lent by Inner Mongolia Autonomous Region Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
One strand of Yuan culture consisted of what the Mongols brought with them: their taste in fine horses, flashy clothing (preferably woven with actual threads of gold), and falconry. For a nomadic people, their architectural preferences were strikingly monumental. Khubilai transformed his walled city of Shangdu (the wondrous "Xanadu" of Coleridge's poem) into a summer palace and hunting retreat for such purely Mongol delights as hunting swans with falcons. More serious business was conducted in Dadu to the south (now Beijing). All that remains of the actual Xanadu, where Mongols were free to be Mongols, are some wall fragments and this wonderful stone post, which, according to archeologists, marked a front corner of the imperial audience hall. Never exhibited outside China until now, the post, almost 7 feet tall, is decorated on two sides with feisty dragons, mirror images of one another, meant to radiate imperial authority. If you weren't personally invited by the Khan to hunt swans and deer, these dragons seem to say, better stay away from Xanadu.
Roof-Ridge Ornament, glazed pottery, from Chunyangdian, Yonglegong, Shanxi Province. Lent by Shanxi Provincial Museum. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The dragon, so closely associated with all things Chinese, actually originated, like the Mongols, in Central Asia. The imposing buildings that the Mongols favored were often topped with a sloped roof decorated at each end with huge, upright ornaments like this one, known generically as "owl's tail" or "dragon's snout." This amazing ceramic dragon, over six feet tall and glazed in luminous green and red, gives a sense of the lavish scale and imaginative energy of Mongol architecture. It comes from the temple complex of Yonglegong in Shanxi Province, devoted to the indigenous religion of Daoism, one of the many religious strands woven into the fabric of Yuan culture. One can imagine that such a roof ornament would scare away not only birds but any evil spirits that might be congregating in the area.
Gong Kai (1222-after 1304), Noble Horse, hand scroll, ink on paper. Lent by Osaka Municipal Museum of Art. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Not everyone kowtowed to the dragons of imperial authority, however. Resentment of Mongol rule was particularly keen in the south, where disenfranchised Song officials like the painter Gong Kai expressed their anger in images such as this starving horse. The Mongols would have recognized that this noble steed, with his 15 visible ribs (as opposed to the 10 of ordinary horses), was of imperial prowess. But, according to a long, self-pitying inscription by the artist, the imperial stables of the Song dynasty had lain empty since the Mongol invasion:
Who today laments over the bones of this noble steed?
In the setting sun, along the sandy shore, he casts a shadow like a mountain.
The painting is a stylistic protest as well, emphasizing the bold brushstrokes (often referred to as "bones") of the Song tradition of amateur "literati" painters and asserting a purely Chinese aesthetic tradition as the "true" identity of Chinese art. In that sense, the painting is as much a refuge for a pure strain of Chinese art as Xanadu was a refuge for purely Mongol pleasures.
Khubilai Khan's Consort, Chabi, album leaf, ink and color on silk. Lent by National Palace Museum, Taipei. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Despite such complaints from dispossessed aristocrats, the Mongols, so ruthless in war, were surprisingly tolerant in religious and aesthetic matters. Practitioners of shamanistic rituals, they were open to the various strands of Buddhism, such as the austere Chan (later "Zen") favored by the educated classes in China, along with Daoism, Nestorian Christianity, and Islam. Khubilai's "consort" (as girlfriends of emperors get to be called) Chabi is credited with his conversion to the Esoteric Buddhism of Tibet. In her official portrait, she is pictured wearing the fashionable gugu headdress and an elaborate collar incorporating a strip of the "cloth of gold" fabric, actual gold threads woven into a motif of falcons, so treasured by the Mongols. Interestingly, exquisite "cloth of gold"—woven by Central Asian craftsmen (including Muslim weavers from Samarkand) relocated by the thousands to China by the Mongols—eventually made its way to Italy, where it appears, amazingly, on the clothing of angels as depicted by Sienese masters.
Rug With Prunus Branch, 13th century, pile carpet. Lent by Naginataboko Preservation Association. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
The many religions practiced during the Yuan dynasty made for some jarring combinations, like angels seated in yoga postures and crosses placed above lotus blossoms. A particularly beautiful example of such cultural "hybridity," with competing aesthetic tendencies resolved into a unified work of art, is this dazzling carpet that turned up, no one knows exactly how or why, in Japan. The borders are Islamic in origin. The central motif of the plum branch is purely Chinese, however, and is a staple of Chinese—and later Japanese—painting. The absence of blossoms (perhaps too difficult to render convincingly with relatively heavy threads) gives the branch a wintry melancholy. The jagged branch is echoed on the left and right margins in the mazelike pattern known as the meander, or Greek key. The carpet may have traveled with Yuan armies in their failed attempt to invade Japan, in 1274, when a "divine wind" (the legendary kamikaze) destroyed their ships as they approached Japanese harbors.
Beggar-Singer With Hound, hanging scroll, ink and color on silk. Lent by Museum for East Asian Art, Cologne. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Cultural and religious mixing led to new forms of popular entertainment during the Yuan period, especially theater, where diversity could be expressed by a simple change of clothing. This painting of a beggar singing for her supper, accompanied by a dog, is actually an actor rehearsing a woman's role for a play. The patchwork dress and the lute are signs of the actor's profession, while the white dog is often represented in Yuan art as the companion of Daoist immortals. The texts of some Yuan plays survived, providing inspiration for plays by such East-West fusionists as Voltaire and Brecht, in his Caucasian Chalk Circle.
Jar With the Story of Guiguzi, porcelain with underglaze cobalt blue decoration. Lent by private collection. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
Scenes from popular plays were often reproduced on porcelain, especially the popular "blue-and-white," which was one of the greatest artistic achievements of the Yuan period. This vibrant jar, a bit larger than a foot in diameter, depicts the wizard Guiguzi driving his cart pulled by a tiger and a leopard. Perhaps the height of the Western taste for blue-and-white occurred in the 19th century, when the painter Whistler, in another example of cross-cultural hybridity, amassed an extraordinary collection of Chinese porcelain, which in turn inspired his paintings.
Bottle, porcelain with splashed copper decoration (Jun ware). Lent by Hebei Cultural Relics Conservation Center. Image courtesy the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
An overarching theme of the Met exhibition is a view of Chinese art (in the formulation of Met curator James C.Y. Watt) as "a continual integration of cultural influences across borders into the mainstream of Chinese culture." I would put it slightly differently. What I love about the art of the Yuan dynasty is the way in which diverse cultural pressures suddenly produce, like diamonds out of coal, miraculous objects of aesthetic intensity. As much as I like blue-and-white porcelain, the pot that moved me most at the Met was this bottle splashed with an abstract swath of copper underglaze, using a method that reached back hundreds of years. The resulting masterpiece captures and unifies, to my eye, many of the diverging energies of the Yuan period. The purplish-red splash looks like the fierce dragons of the Xanadu pillar and the Yonglegong roof ornament while also echoing the Zen austerity of the bare plum branch. The bottle itself has something of the quiet, balanced composure of Khubilai, as he appears in his official portrait. "Yuan" means "beginning," and pots like this—along with so many of the other wondrous objects on show at the Met, true "miracles of rare device," to borrow Coleridge's phrase—radiate a supreme confidence that the Yuan dynasty, with all its cultural cross-currents fused into momentary unity, was the beginning of something big.