Times & Places

Yuan (Yüan) dynasty (1279-1368)

In 1271, Kublai Khan, fifth Khan of the Mongol Empire, declared himself emperor of a new dynasty in China, the Da Yuan or Great Origin, and went on to defeat the Song dynasty over the course of the next several years. The last Song emperor died in 1279, and the Yuan dynasty reunited China after the division of the Song. The empire extended as far west as what are today Hungary and Poland, and the Mongols dominated the entire Silk Road, bringing about a period of stability known as the Pax Mongolia.

The Yuan was governed along Chinese lines, but civil service examinations were suspended until 1315, with a limited number of scholars at court, where foreign advisors were employed. Chinese scholars, typically educated southerners, refused to serve the Mongol government and had to find alternative means of supporting themselves. Those who had the income to do so devoted themselves to creative pursuits. New forms of fiction and drama emerged, and literati painting (wenrenhua) became dominant.

At court, the Mongols employed artists from the peoples they conquered, among whom were Central Asians, Persians, Europeans, and Chinese. In painting and decorative art there was a tendency to revive and reinterpret ancient styles, especially those of the Tang. The Mongols were adherents of Tantric Buddhism, and imperially supported Buddhist sculpture demonstrates Himalayan influence until the 14th century when Chinese artists and techniques became more prominent.

Though there was a decrease in court patronage of traditional ceramics, with a decline in production in the north and the shifting of the industry central and south, it was also a time of innovation and experimentation. Song wares continued to varying degrees, but the blue-and-white tradition developed significantly, and the demand for celadon in the Near East drove the production of these wares.

Following the death of Kublai Khan in 1294 there were seven emperors in 40 years. This intense struggle for power weakened Mongol rule. In 1348, following several Chinese rebellions, the last Khan fled north and Mongol rule ceased.

Jeelan Bilal-Gore, Digital Collections Content Coordinator, 2015.

Drawn from