"Age of the Great Khan: Pluralism in Chinese Art and Culture Under the Mongols" represents a major cross-departmental effort on the part of the National Palace Museum. In the past, exhibitions from the Museum collection had often been organized separately on the basis of medium. However, in today's wider perspective on culture and art history, the highly developed aesthetics of Chinese painting and calligraphy (for example) need not be distinguished from those of other art forms. In fact, works of different media should be presented at the same time in order to reflect the multiple dimensions of their original cultural context. In other words, the art of a particular time, place, or people always reflects a plurality of materials, influences, and many other factors. Only by offering works together and using the same standards of appreciation and understanding does the greater cultural picture emerge.
This is not the first time that the Museum's departments of Painting and Calligraphy, Antiquities, and Books and Documents have cooperated on an exhibition. It does, however, represent a new trend for the Museum through the choice of objects from the collection to express an important feature of the people and culture from a particular time and place. As the first step in this direction, selections have been made from the Museum's collection of Yuan dynasty (1260-1368) artifacts to reflect the artistic, ethnic, and cultural plurality of China under this short yet important period of Mongol rule. With one of the greatest collections of Yuan art in the world, the Museum is confident in portraying the pluralism of this period. We hope that visitors will come away with a sense of the dynamism that marks Yuan art and culture.
The exhibition has been divided into four major categories: "Altan Urug--The Golden Clan", "Polyethnic Literati", "The Compassion of Pandita", and "Yeke Uran--The Great Artisans". These categories represent the images and art collections of the Mongol rulers, the ethnic pluralism of art and scholarship, the influence of Tibetan Buddhist art, and the refined efforts of artisans (respectively). These works of art reflect tradition and innovation in art, a sophisticated level of aesthetics, and the artistic achievements of ethnic groups in the Yuan dynasty. However, discrimination in art collecting in the past combined with the finds of modern archaeology often mean that no one collection can adequately express every facet of this period. The National Palace Museum is no exception. For this reason, even the wealth of objects here cannot do justice to the fullness of art and culture under the Mongols in Yuan China.
The Mongols are renowned for having established a vast empire which, though not centered in China's heartland, extended from their homeland on the Mongolian steppes throughout Asia and into Europe. It was in 1206 that a tribal ruler was elected as Chinggis Khan (1160s-1227), meaning "Universal Ruler". By unifying the Mongol tribes, he created one of the most efficient and feared armies ever assembled in the world. He subsequently defeated the Tanguts as well as the Chin dynasty Jurcheds, who occupied northern China at the time. Chinggis Khan and his successors went on to form an empire of unprecedented geographic dimensions, covering parts of Asia, Central Asia, the Near East, Russia, and even Europe.
Chinggis Khan's grandson Khubilai Khan (1215-1294) became Great Khan in 1260 and chose the Chinese dynastic name Yuan in 1271. In 1279, he conquered the Chinese by destroying the Southern Sung, which had occupied southern China. Ultimately, Peking became the center of a vast empire that comprised four major Mongol khanates stretching from the Pacific Ocean to Eastern Europe. With the great khans all from the same clan and their areas connected by a system of roads and stations, trade and travelers (such as Marco Polo) went uninterrupted between East and West. China was part of what historians have termed "Pax Mongolica", reflecting the unification of the Eurasian continent. Thus, China was joined into what scholars have called the Mongol "world system" of the 13th century.
It thus seems surprising that China, with the political and economic foundations of the vast Mongol empire centered in the Yuan capital of Peking, apparently did not give rise to the full cultural potential of this world order. Was it because Mongol rule in China was too brief, or was it due to the Chinese revivalism spurred by the rebel leader Chu Yuan-chang, who established the Ming dynasty in 1368? Was it because Christians and Muslims in Yuan China simply chose to adapt into the long flow of Chinese culture, or was it because the Chinese themselves lacked much interest in mixing with other cultures? Without having done much research on this period, I will not speculate further.
Nevertheless, we do know that Muslim culture also spanned and influenced various parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa in the 13th century. Furthermore, the Christian world in Europe at this time was also preparing to give rise to what would be known as the Renaissance world. China under the Mongols, however, did not develop into such far-reaching orders. In fact, quite the opposite occurred when Chu Yuan-chang drove the Mongols out and initiated a period of introversion for Chinese culture. Perhaps this goes without saying for native Ming rulers, but even the artistic and cultural achievements of the Manchus (a Jurched tribe), who conquered the Ming and beyond to establish the Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911), were based largely on the assimilation into Chinese civilization.
Thus, when looking back at world history six or seven hundred years ago, some Chinese today seem to take pride in the fact that many foreigners in the Yuan dynasty chose to absorb Chinese culture. However, I feel that as soon as China became a bastion of local culture within the greater Mongolian empire, it lost a vital opportunity to plant the seeds for cultural synthesis, which in some ways was a loss for Chinese as a whole.
The Yuan dynasty objects in the Museum perhaps naturally can only reflect patterns of collecting in the past and the taste of previous connoisseurs. For this reason, it cannot represent the pluralistic nature of imperial Mongol culture or even the full picture of surviving objects from Mongol China. However, the limited works in the collection do reveal to some extent the fact that a pluralistic Asian culture indeed existed in China during the Yuan dynasty under the Mongols. This is what the Museum had in mind when planning this exhibition.
Making objective selections based on the materials at hand is crucial for
presenting an unbiased perspective of a particular time and place. I write
this introduction as a preface in the hope that visitors from all walks of
life will be able to capture a glimpse of this from "Age of the Great Khan:
Pluralism in Art and Culture Under the Mongols".