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the Yuan Dynasty, artists, notably those native Chinese who steadfastly refused
to serve their conqueror had to seek inspiration within themselves and their
traditions unlike the previous dynasties. The Tang and Song periods were seen
as more ideal times, and what the painters sought in their art.

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ideal of literati painting, which admired erudition and personal expression was
thoroughly fixed by artists such as the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty. The emphasis on blunt and simple forms (e.g.,
bamboo or rocks) and on calligraphy, generally with deep complementary
inscriptions on the paintings themselves. In addition, there was a
conservative restoration of Buddhist art, which was sponsored at the hands
of the Mongols as part of their attempt to establish authority over the

purpose of this essay was to investigate how the Chinese people/artists react
to the Mongols conquest, more specifically, the Four Masters of the Yuan
Dynasty. “How did the Mongols conquest influence the Yuan Dynasty, and the Four
Yuan Masters?” Additionally, it is important to investigate the fall and rise
of the Yuan Dynasty, leading to the Four Yuan Masters, to answer this question.

The Fall of the Song Dynasty

            The Song
Dynasty commenced its ruling in China in 960. However, The Song were constantly
under pressure from the non-Chinese people, in the end, the reign of the Song
Dynasty ended on March 19th, 1279, when the Mongols completed their
conquest of China by defeating a fleet in the Battle of Yamen.


            Under the leader Kublai
Khan, the Mongols began to threaten the Southern Song Dynasty. When Kublai
commissioned an emissary to discuss peace, the head of the Song Government had
seized the diplomat, which infuriated the Mongol leader, provoking an assault
on the Song territory in 1267.

Mongols gained access to the Yangzi River after obtaining Xiangyang in 1273.
This gave them the chance to infiltrate deep into the Song territory. The
Government had to move south since more and more of their territory were being
taken by the Mongols.

last Song prince drowned in battle in March of 1279 when the Mongol navy
engaged the Song fleet and defeated it. The Mongols were able to quickly end
the remaining resistance and for the first time in history, China was entirely
in foreign hands.

was an essential development in the areas of painting, calligraphy, poetry, and
theater. The subsequent dislocation generated by the establishment of the Yuan
Dynasty by the Mongols, countless court and literary artists retreated from
social life.

of the Mongols Conquest

A number of the scholars decided to withdraw
into seclusion, rather than to serve the Mongols, which established a
heightened sense of class identity and individual purpose, that also in turn,
influenced their art. The literati
typically established their style on a wide-ranging knowledge of remote stylistic
precedents particularly preferred and thoroughly reconstructed by means of
passionate calligraphic brushwork.

comparatively than civilized values now frame the art of painting as not ever
before, and a stylistic gulf commenced among literati painters and court
professionals that was not linked prior to the 18th century.

The Mongols conquest enforces a bitter new
political reality consequent to China. Educated Chinese who normally would attempt
careers in public service often found themselves mostly disenfranchised, since
the Mongols had no tradition of recruiting scholars as administrators and
preferred to employ members of other conquered races. Generally, merely minor appointments, either as
teachers in local schools, or as low level clerks were given to those
particular who enrolled in government services.

Having resisted the Mongols invasion, the
literati as a group, as well as the Southern Chinese faced a conscious policy
of discrimination. Oftentimes under the aegis of the Buddhist or Daoist
religions, this contributed to the way that many of the scholars chose to
withdraw from public life to pursue their pun personal and artistic cultivation.
Drawing on scholar-official aesthetic of the late Northern Song, Yuan literati
used painting as a vehicle for self-expression and no longer took truth to
nature as their goal.

            The new directions that
painting took in the early Yuan were pursued mostly by artists who were in one
way or another involved in these issues and responded to them in the subjects
and styles of their works. Much early Yuan paintings can be said to have
political dimension, along with other kinds of meanings and expression.

Although much of the paintings had once presented
technical refinement and had privately passed on the heritage of the immediate
past. The artworks style and subject were both intended to reflect closely
to the artists own personality and mood rather than conforming to the wishes of
a patron.

The Yuan

            For forty years, the Chinese armies
resisted the Mongols, almost unsupported by their own government. But the
outcome was inevitable, and even before the last Song ruler perished, the
Mongols had proclaimed their dynastic title, calling themselves the Yuan.
Although Kublai Khan was an able ruler and deep admirer of Chinese culture, the
Mongol administration was ruthless and corrupted. Seven emperors succeeded one
another in the following years following the death of Kublai. However, in 1348,
the Chinese discontent with the harsh rule of the last Khan broke into open
rebellion. For twenty years rival bandits and warlords fought over prostrate
country, which the Mongols had long since ceased to control effectively.

            Finally, in 1369, the Khan fled
northward from Beijing, the power of the Mongols was broken forever, and the
short, inglorious rule of the Yuan came to an end. In conquering China, they
had realized the age-long dream of all the nomad tribes, but in less than a
century, the Chinese drained them of the savage vitality that had made that
conquest possible.

            As a means of illustrating
personality, thought, emotion, and identity, artists emphasized on the
expressive qualities inherent in brush and ink. They expressed more and more of
their soul in their art, and became leading figures in painting.

The paintings
were characterized by simplicity, transcendence, magnificence, and
elegance. Court patronage of art was primarily restricted to the Mongolian
traditional arts such as textiles, jewelry, metalwork, and etc. However, outside
the court, cultural creativity in several of the arts, in addition to calligraphy
and painting, lost the long-established court patronage and set the
spotliht for the acceleration of scholar-amateurs (literati) to the center of
the painting world.


1279, the Mongol empire had completely taken over China. Although the Chinese
literati learned how to live with the Mongol’s rule, a considerable number of
the members of the educated class cooperated in maintaining the government
along the “Confucian” lines of the traditional Imperial state. However, a great deal of the
members of the elite were alienated in distinction to the government and sought
ways to dodge service.

In effect, this
freed a substantial number of educated men and many exam graduates from the
late Song from burdens of government responsibilities. A number of these men
turned to artistic achievements for fulfillment, and even though they lacked
the type of technical training that characterized earlier academic painters, it
was them that devoted themselves who truly established a tradition of literati
visual art. 

The Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty

            The Yuan Masters are a group of
Chinese painters who worked during the Yuan period (1271–1368)
and were admired during the Ming dynasty and later periods as considerable
exponents of the tradition of “literati
painting.” Rather than outward representation and immediate visual appeal, they
were more concerned with individual expression and learning. Their attitudes
toward life was likewise above worldly considerations, detached and aloof.
Their outlook influenced their painting styles.

in their lives and in their art, the consolidation in the Four Masters of a consistent philosophical
and political point of view and a broad spectrum of ink techniques made them
models for later scholar-painters. Unless one is knowledgeable and informed by
means of how acutely conscious they were of debt to the Yuan masters and how
periodically they paid appreciation to one and the other in their style and in
their inscriptions, it is impossible to acknowledge the work of the landscape
painters of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Huang Gongwang and Wu Zhen being of the
prior generation of the artists in the Yuan, consciously mimic the work of
ancient masters, especially those pioneering artists of the Five Dynasties
period, who executed landscape in a broad, almost impressionistic manner, with
coarse brushstrokes and wet ink washes. While these painters were also
respected by the two younger Yuan masters, the reasonable thinness of Ni Zan and the almost embroidered richness of Wang Meng could not be more distinctive from the
work of the older Yuan masters.


            Huang Gongwang’s “Dwelling in the Fuchun
Mountains was painted between 1347 and 1350. According to the artist’s
inscription at the end, he sketched out the entire composition in one sitting,
then carried the scroll with him when he traveled, adding to and going over it
when his mood was right, without quite finishing it.

            Huang Gongwang comprehended and utilized the practice of
interweaving thick, dry brushstrokes to produce visually tangible forms.
His compound brushwork, overlaying darker over lighter, drier over wetter,
reflecting the scroll’s long gestation, thus providing a much richer textures
and a stronger sense of tactile surface. This has allowed Huang to build
dynamically complex masses without resorting to the firm outlines and graded

            The brushwork is feathery soft
throughout the work, while confining his drawing to this softness of touch,
built such monumental rock constructions, making them both substantial and

Huang Gongwang’s most
revered and perhaps only authentic surviving work is the hand scroll Dwelling
in the Fuchun Mountains, painted
with dynamic brushwork during occasional moods of inspiration between 1347 and
1350. Contradicting the
academicians, Huang Gongwang did not ponder to go over his brushwork
considering that expression was his aim. The cumulative effect of his
masterpiece is acquired by an extensive feeling of oneness with nature that
specified a quintessential standard for later scholarly paintings, not by its
fidelity to visible forms.

Wu Zhen

Wu Zhen was born in the second year after
the Southern Song dynasty fell to the hands of the Yuan dynasty established by
the Mongol people. Disappointed by both the defeat of the Southern Song dynasty
which was ruled by the Han Chinese people, and the fact that the Yuan rulers
were suspicious of and discriminated against the Han Chinese people, Wu Zhen
chose to become a recluse instead of pursuing a political career with his
Confucian scholarship and literary learning. He devoted his time to the study
of the Yi Jing Book of Changes and fortune-telling. His solitude and
righteousness (as interpreted by Ming and Qing dynasty literati) were the
source of his highly-appreciated landscape and ink bamboo paintings which also
bore such an independent and upright character.

Wu Zhen’s landscapes convey a mood of
tranquility, a quality for which Chinese writers use the term pingdan, (which
means blandness) close to what we call reserved. In his artwork Fisherman,
painted in 1342, the poem inscribed by the artist at the top is about fishing,
but the painting is not. A man seen on the boat near the foreground bank gazes
abstractedly at the moonlit expanse of water and low hills, while the boatman
rests his oar. The composition of the painting is based stabilizing
horizontals, counted by the only vertical trees. The ground forms swell
moderately into low mounds, with only one triangular hill in the upper right,
one of Wu’s favorite forms, rising to greater eminence and echoing the treetops
in its shape. Houses in the upper right similarly echo a resting shelter in the
lower left. These relationships form, stretched diagonally across the picture
surface, project a sense of separation and loneliness; this is another aspect
of the appeal of this river-landscape type to Yuan people.  

Wu Zhen, unlike the other Yuan “recluses”
who were really quite gregarious, was a true hermit, well-educated but never
attempting official service, never traveling far outside his hometown except
for his trips to Hangzhou, making a meager living by practicing divination in
the marketplace and selling his paintings. He is said to have been unsociable,
a trait confirmed by the the fact that his works are virtually never inscribed
by others. He was little noticed by other artists in his time and only begins
to loom large among Yuan painters when Shen Zhou and others in the Ming dynasty
learn from him and appreciate him.


a member of the elite classes who was dissatisfied with the Mongol taxation
policies, Ni Zan spent most of his later years drifting across the lakes and
hills of the southern Jiangsu. For his forceful restraint he was much
celebrated by the later Ming court wenren.

work by Ni Zan is ornamented with the painters’ calligraphy which is written in
a exceedingly emphatic style beyond the background of the painting. The nail
brush stroke that is examined in Ni Zan’s work etches into the observers mind
the strength of the painters’ message and the conviction of his fundamentals.
The seals on Ni Zan’s work are stamped across the atmospheric background of the
work. There is a great deal of personal and indiviual effect through the ways
that the trees are sparsely depicted in the foreground, a placid stretch of
lake waters determines the middle ground and portly mountains sit in the
background. There are no humans overtly depicted, generating an impression that
the viewers are themselves gazing upon the limitless expanses of nature in all
its rugged greatness.

Rongxi Studio among Ni’s work id based on its ideal realization of the aim implicit
in his whole artistic enterprise to achieve the formal substance and spatial
readability of conventional landscape painting within the limitations imposed
by his expressive purpose. The brushwork is as hesitant and unassertive as
ever, the ink tone is pale (except for the few sparsely distributed dark
accents), the scenery as plain. The drawing is done with a slanting brush that
turns abruptly downward in midstroke to delineate the earthy forms, which are
self-contained and placid.

Zan’s painting, is ultimately a declaration of wondrous abandon brought about
as a revelation after profound planning on the present and the future. A rather
Buddhist awareness: impermanence of all things in nature. The painting
illustrates an austere portrayal of nature. A realization of emptiness
penetrates the atmosphere. The brevity of expression in the painter’s work is
echoed in the monochromatic palette and in the presence of minimalistic forms
seem to meld into each other. Using diluted, dense ink expressed via cun
strokes to provide texture into the objects, Ni Zan implements through a side
brush technique. The detail is minimal, non-committed to mimetic principles but
nevertheless suggestive of a rather impressionist feel of perception and
expression of responsiveness and sensitivity. The use of ink is extraordinarily
economical and the diversity in value and hue riddle the configuration in dark
points. These dark points come about symbolic of nails that pin down their
respective elements in space to assemble a fleetingly coherent though a
suggestively impermanent statement.  The scene changes
the viewer in a paradoxical combination of mental oblivion and ordinary


The painting “Ge Zhichuan Moving his
Dwelling,” depicts a journey of man and his entourage through a grand
mountainous vista. The forms in the painting are elaborately detailed and
ornamental. Wang Meng uses a
variety of techniques to render detailed and stylistically diverse depictions
of trees, leaves and rocks. The compositional arrangement of the painting is
somewhat similar to Ni Zan’s the
rongxi studio with three
element sequence being that of trees in the foreground, water in the middle
ground and mountains in the background. However, Wang Meng’s composition is
much more tangible rather than esoteric. As the undulating course of the human
journey reveals itself, one cannot skip the linearity of time and has to course
through an experience of traversing through life itself in the painting.

Meng’s experience was not eremitic but rather that of courtly recognition
during the Mongol occupation of China. His works seem to express through the symbolic
twists and turns of his lines that of his fate as being driven by the
circumstances where all he could do was course through the journey; in effect
endure and prevail all that nature sent down his path.  In
the tight-knit and rich variety of the cun strokes employed one can see the
ever cherished effect of restrained dynamism within the painting.  This
restless intensity that ultimately translated into repose is much cherished by
critics of Chinese art even today.

The detailed ornamentations and definitions
of the trees, water and rocks express a mimetic commitment to the richness of
nature, which help the developed and diverse expressions of nature help envelop
and shape the journey of Wang Meng’s human characters which are the
protagonists of his work. We
can detect an entourage of humans ascending upwards a mountainous trail.  The
viewer can connect to Wang Meng’s characters at an indirect level. The sense of
placement and scale in Wang Meng’s work help point out the monumental nature of
expedition that the humans in the painting carry out. The
space is entirely utilized as the painter depicts an imposing scene. The use of
emptiness is used to render the atmosphere and the placid waters at the base of
the painting although very sparingly. His use of color
in dispersion through the ink is very meticulous, which plays to give life to
the forest creating a remarkably tangible sensory experience. Wang Meng’s
brushwork appear to highlight a meticulous observer of nature working with
absolute finesse.


on the scholar-official aesthetic of the late Northern Song, Yuan literati
painters no longer captued legitimacy to nature as their goal but comparatively
use painting as a vehicle for self-expression. In the hands of exceptionally
educated scholar-artists, brushwork developed into calligraphic and assumed an
autonomy that outperformed its function as an instrument of generating
representation forms.

It was
landscape painting that occupied the greatest masters, occasioned the most
fruitful critical and theoretical writing, and passed on most of value to
artists of later centuries. The shaping of landscape painting into a medium for
the expression of an artist’s individual nature and feelings, a development
that begins in Zhao Mengfu’s works and culminates in those of Huang Gongwang,
Ni Zan, and Wang Meng, was a major triumph for the whole literati school,
serving to place it at the forefront of painting for later collectors and

the Mongol Yuan Dynasty, when multiple educated Chinese were barred from
government service, the model of the song literati retreat transformed into a
full blown alternative culture as this disenfranchised elite advanced their
estates into sites for literary gatherings and other cultural pursuits. There gatherings were not
infrequently commemorated in paintings that, rather than displaying a realistic
depiction of a substantial place, conveyed the common cultural ideals of a
reclusive world over a symbolic shorthand in which a villa might be represented
by a humble thatched hut. Because a man’s studio or garden could be considered as
an extension of himself, painting of such places generally appionted to express
the values of their owner.

politically the Yuan Dynasty may have been a brief and inglorious, but it is a
period of special interest and importance in the history of Chinese art. A
period when men, uncertain of the present, looked both backward and forward.
Their nostalgia is shown in the tendency, in painting as much as in the
decorative arts, to revive ancient styles. At the same time, the Yuan Dynasty
was in several respects revolutionary, for not only were those revived
traditions given a new interpretation, but the divorce between the court and
the intellectuals brought about by the Mongol occupation instilled in the
scholar class a conviction of belonging to a self-contained elite that was not
undermined until the twentieth century and was to have an enormous influence on

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