Source: The New York Times,
By Souren Melikian
Published; November 19, 2010
NEW YORK — Those who thought of China as a monolithic culture hermetically closed to foreign influence will have to think again after seeing “The World of Khubilai Khan” at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
This highly important show is about much more than art. Put together by the Met curator James Watt, whose real name is Qu Zhiren, it outlines the portrait of a highly diverse land where non-Chinese groups often played a key role, introducing new concepts, including faiths born far afield, such as Buddhism.
This happened once more following the onslaught of the Mongols, who rushed in from the northwestern steppes around 1237 and finally overran the whole of China in 1276, toppling the Song dynasty in the south.
By then, the Mongols had also invaded the Iranian world. Bringing the two oldest cultures in the East under one rule had an extraordinary impact on China, even if the Mongols themselves were probably not the main actors responsible for introducing outside influences.
In an important introductory chapter to the exhibition book, Mr. Watt dwells on the presence of various Turkic groups in Mongol-occupied China. Some were already present at the northern Chinese court under the Jin dynasty before the Mongol invasion. Others, notably the Tangut and the Uighurs, helped Khubilai — or rather Qubilay Khan as his name is usually spelled in Western historiography — in his bid for absolute power as the Khan of China.
The Turkic groups probably inspired the Mongols with the idea of populating a new city in the heart of China, Xunmalin, with inhabitants deported from Samarqand, the Central Asian Iranian metropolis that had been the capital of the Turkic Qarakhanid dynasty in the 12th century.
The eclectic Mongols themselves were simultaneously drawn to the Tibetan brand of Buddhism and to Iranian court traditions.
Qubilay, born of a Turkic princess from the Kerait community, which had adopted Nestorian Christianism, was brought up as a Christian but eventually turned to Buddhism. At his request, the Tibetan lama Phagspa devised the alphabet that in 1269 became the official Mongol script in China, while in Iran the Uighur script prevailed in documents issued by the Mongol Ilkhans.
The artifacts of the Mongols themselves, of which the remarkable craftsmanship has been revealed by recent excavations, do not appear to have had any impact on Chinese art. Interestingly, Mongol metalwork betrays twin poles of attraction to China and Iran long before the Mongol invasions.
A bowl and stand of the late 11th or early 12th century reproduce Chinese shapes, while a shallow cup with a broad thumb-rest concealing the ring-handle interprets an East Iranian model. Once in China, the Mongol ruling class remained as eclectic as ever.
In some cases, Chinese tradition was followed. A senior official at the court of Qubilay, Yelu Zhu, was buried with his wife in present-day Beijing, elevated by the Mongols to the rank of capital under the name Dadu. Yelu’s funerary chamber, excavated in 1998, yielded two masterpieces of Chinese animal sculpture. A horse striding clouds and a reclining dog have the enigmatic animal smile already noticeable in sixth century A.D. gray earthenware figures.
In the ethnically diverse court entourage, jewelry was influenced by far away Iran. The gold filigree ornaments with turquoise-colored insets found in the tomb of an official called Shi Gang are derived from Iranian models. Shi Gang’s father was Chinese but his mother came from the north Asian Jurchen people. An epitaph in the tomb further reveals that his wife belonged to the Turkic Kerait community. The hairpin, the earring and the two rings recovered from the funerary chamber were hers.
Shi Gang’s father had had four spouses. One was Chinese, two were Jurchen and one was Korean. Another large tomb in the Shi family burial ground yielded a Korean celadon porcelain jar of the 13th century.
While multiple artistic traditions attracted the Mongol court’s attention, Chinese scholars invited bronze makers to turn to the distant past of China for inspiration. Some in the Mongol aristocracy who were drawn to Chinese culture followed this trend.
A fascinating character in the Sinophile Mongol milieu on whom recent excavations have shed light was Princess Sengge Ragi, sister of the emperors Wuzong and Renzong and aunt of two other emperors, Yingzong and Wenzong. A revivalist bronze vessel with patterns inspired by 12th- to 6th-century B.C. models was recovered from her funerary chamber in present-day Inner Mongolia. A long inscription cast on the vessel names the princess by a title conferred upon her in 1311. She died in 1332. An invaluable dating clue is thus provided to the time bracket within which the piece was executed.
Another bronze vessel in the princess’s tomb looks back to 13th century B.C. types. Remarkably, the inscriptions on both pieces say that they were destined for a temple in Inner Mongolia, telling us that these archaizing vessels had a ritual purpose.
In the painter’s art, revivalism also prevailed. Driven by a perception of decadence in the Southern Song style, the scholars turned to early Northern Song art in the 11th century, seen to this day as a golden age.
Princess Sengge, an avid collector of Chinese painting, owned a hand scroll by a contemporary master of the day, Wang Zhenpeng. A musician plays the qin, an instrument then almost exclusively used in literary circles, Mr. Watt points out. The princess’s collection otherwise consisted of earlier paintings from the Song period that the leading literati of the day were invited to admire in 1323.
The scholarly elite that had sought refuge in the South had become disenfranchised after the fall of the Southern Song capital Hangzhou. Maxwell Hearn, a Met curator and historian of Chinese painting, remarks that they indulged in ancient images of reclusion in times of upheaval. Yet, even when seeking solace by looking to the past, great scholar-painters could not escape the wind of change.
The art of Gong Kai, who had been an official under the Song, epitomizes the transformation that the models of the past underwent in Mongol times. A hand scroll dealing with the traditional theme of the “Noble Horse” that symbolized the scholar-official, depicts a gaunt stallion with salient ribs, a transparent allusion to the artist’s distress. This feeling is echoed in the accompanying poem, written in archaistic characters. The script itself is a way of expressing a yearning for ancient times.
Interestingly, artists who collaborated with the Mongol regime, like Zhao Mengfu — a friend of Gong Kai’s — also strove to revive Northern Song themes, as in “Twin Pines, Level Distance.” In others, Zhao turned to the even more distant Tang age. “Monk in a Red Robe,” dated 1304, depicts a robed figure that harks back to the eighth century.
Ironically, it was by the time the Mongol dynasty was set on a path of irreversible decadence that a period of prodigious transformation of Chinese art took off on a grand scale.
Porcelain changed out of recognition. During the 30 years preceding the fall of the Mongol dynasty, overthrown in 1368 by the first Ming ruler, new blue and white vessels in the large sizes required by the Iranian royal banquet tradition adopted at the Mongol court were designed. The crisp, clear-cut patterns, as well as the sharply contrasted color scheme, were radically different from the blurry motifs and toned nuances of the Song age. Even the few traditional Chinese literary themes, such as scenes of “The Four Favorites” that were illustrated on blue and white porcelain, were rendered in a style that greatly differed from scholars’ paintings.
Silver plate with parcel gilt motifs in a hybrid style mixing Chinese and Iranian patterns was created around the same time.
Even lacquer objects, a quintessentially Chinese art form, underwent a spectacular transformation. Motifs became large and bold.
Some strange objects, such as a gold dish unlike anything seen before or after the second half of the 13th century, make one wonder whether an artistic culture as yet to be determined blossomed somewhere between the Chinese and the Iranian world.
More surprises are very likely to follow the extraordinary archeological revelations brought to the Western public by the most novel show of the year.
“The World of Khubilai Khan” Metropolitan Museum of Art. New York. Through Jan. 2.