The World of Khubilai Khan


Asian Art Newspaper’s ‘From the Archives’ looks back at exhibitions that deserve a second chance to be discovered and enjoyed. In our December 2020 issue, we explore the World of Khubilai Khan in Yuan-dynasty China

After the ground-breaking book by Sherman Lee published decades ago (Chinese Art Under the Mongols: Yuan Dynasty, 1279-1368, in 1968), this exhibition from 2010, The World of Khubilai Khan, organised by the then Brooke Russell Astor Chairman of the Metropolitan Museum’s department of Asian Art, James CY Watt, was the only major exploration since of the first of two foreign cultures that ever conquered and controlled the Celestial Empire. Both the Yuan and the Qing began as second-rate Asian cultures with first-rate military forces, and even though the Manchurian Qing preserved many of their own traditions, the Mongolian Yuan quickly became Sinicised and were responsible for the largest importation of non-Asian art, culture and technology that China would ever witness before the advent of the modern age. The time of the Yuan served as a transition between two Han Chinese dynasties, the Song and the Ming, injecting the society with radical changes and additions on almost every front. For that reason this major exhibition boldly attempts and successfully succeeds in exposing and explaining the major shifts, additions, expansions and permanent broadening of the multiple facets of China’s cultural and societal infrastructure.

Mongol World Empire

China, then the largest nation on earth, was only one of five parts of what has been called the ‘Mongol World Empire’, the largest empire the world had ever seen, covering at its greatest extent an area of almost 13,000,000 square miles/33,000,000 square kilometres, 22% of the Earth’s total land area. Including the Empire of the Great Khan (China and north into Siberia,) the Golden Horde (or Kipchak Khanate), the White Horde (or the Ilkhanate), and the Changhadai Khanate, it stretched south to Cambodia, west to the Danube River, north into Siberia and Russia and east to the Sea of Japan.

Mongol rule over China lasted only 89 years (1279-1368), but during that very brief period China became an integral part of a greater unit, like the European Union today, that served to facilitate a flood of new ideas and technologies beyond borders that could never have arrived through the normal international highways of commercial contacts. The Middle-Eastern territories served as the most important of the foreign sources, for it was the origin of sophisticated technologies, sciences and new ideas and philosophies, but also exotic artistic designs and styles. In the field of the arts, the most important was probably the use of cobalt blue ore as decoration for porcelains, accounting for its being called ‘Mohammedan Blue’ in England and Europe until the mid-20th century.

Daily Life in the Yuan Court

Because of the immensity of the The World of Khubilai Khan, the richness of information and the lavish number of works of art on display, it has been divided into four sections: Daily Life, Painting and Calligraphy, Religious Arts and Decorative Arts. Daily life in the Yuan court, and amongst the aristocracy, was anything but ‘daily’ with its rich tradition of splendour – usually in the form of gold, or cloth of gold, nasij. An innovation from Central Asia, this technique attests to the mass movement of weavers from the eastern Iranian world to China during the Mongol period. Coming from a Central Asian tradition, the love of gold, like amongst the Liao, was unreserved and the Yuan adopted and adapted the gold styles of the Song, added their own particular tastes and produced it in quantities, as seen by several remarkable small pieces in the exhibition. Nasij, appears to have arrived through the filter of Sogdian craftsmen and the results are stunning – the cloth is often seen with repeated roundels, confronting beasts, and organised arabesques.

Archaeological Discoveries from the Yuan Dynasty

It is only because of travel that transmissions occurred and that aspect has been treated to its own subsection. The archaeology and history subsection explains in detail the importance of archaeological work over the last two decades and the remarkable works of art that have been uncovered, adding to our repository of knowledge and understanding of this fleeting period of creative brilliance. The exhibition was rich in archaic style ritual vessels in bronze and pottery in archaic style, stone carvings of animals, seals and foreign ceramics, including a fine Goryeo-period (918-1392) celadon water dropper in the form of a tortoise with a dragon’s head. dating from the 12th/13th century, it appears to me as being a product of the Kangjin kilns near Pusan, the source of the finest early celadons.

The World of Khubilai Khan: Painting and Calligraphy in the Yuan Dynasty

The Painting, Woodblock Prints, and Calligraphy section is self-explanatory and dwells on the four Yuan Masters who continue the West Lake tradition and expand it in wondrous ways of their own, especially in the way they gave heightened emphasis to the calligraphic qualities that the brush can lend to a painting and the calligraphy subsection dwells on Zhao Mengfu, who mastered both styles of brushwork so well that he successfully blurred the line between them. One often thinks that paintings of horses are a Tang speciality, but it is the Yuan, from an equine-based society, who dominate the field and the exhibition was fortunately rich in the art form. Woodblock printing, originating in the 8th century, was normally the vehicle for religious texts and illustrations, but under the Yuan, its use as a vehicle for popular stories and history permanently expanded its use.

Religious Art in the Yuan Dynasty

The Religious Art section of The World of Khubilai Khan is of particular importance, not just from the point of view that art works of religious intent are displayed and discussed, but rather because of the great number of different religions involved. It is common knowledge that Xi’an under the Tang was the home to a Nestorian church, a mosque, and a synagogue. The Yuan, however, served as hosts for resident practitioners and houses of worship for Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Nestorian Christianity, Persian Manichaeism, Hinduism and Islam and the sheer internationalism of Yuan society is evident in this particular section of this exhibition.

Whether one is captivated by the multifaceted aspects of Yuan painting, the brilliance of the golden works of art and textiles, the sculptured works, the daily items of the delicacy of the jewellery, this exhibition was a profound display of the synthesis of what had preceded this dynasty, what was imported by it and the resulting classifications and styles of art that served as what would forever be called traditional in the arts and culture of China.


The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty was held at The Metropolitan Museum of Art in 2010. Catalogue available.