The Yuan dynasty was a period of diverse ethnic groups co-existing in China. Officials divided people in China into four major categories: Mongols, Central Asians, Chinese, and Southern Chinese. Cultural and social interaction between them became quite common, and exchange often took place in the form of relations based on marriage, studies, and government office. The Mongol Yuan dynasty is thus distinguished by an unprecedented multiethnic group of scholar-officials.
Works of painting and calligraphy by literati of different ethnic backgrounds are on display in this section. They reflect the unique scholar-official environment of the Yuan dynasty and the new manner in art that it fostered. In the early Yuan dynasty (mid-13th century), some scholars of the former Sung dynasty, such as Cheng Ssu-hsiao (1241-1318) and Ch'ien Hsuan (ca. 1235-before 1307), rejected the Yuan and expressed their grief and longing through writing, painting, and calligraphy. Other Chinese literati, however, accepted the call to service by the Mongol government, and they included the influential Chao Meng-fu (1254-1322) and Hsien-yu Shu (1256-1301). Through their advocation of revivalism in art, they helped to give life to ancient Chinese painting and calligraphy in this new era.
By the middle Yuan (early 14th century), literary gatherings and the practice of presenting and inscribing works of painting and calligraphy reached a peak among both Chinese and non-Chinese groups. For example, Ts'ao Chih-po (1272-1355) did "Mountain Peaks Covered in Snow" for the Tibetan Hsi-ying (A-li-mu-pa-la) and Chao Yung (1289-ca. 1360) did "Five Horses" for the Central Asian scholar Pei-yen-hu-tu. Through the support of foreign scholars and officials in China, traditional painting and calligraphy reached a diverse audience as its influence became widespread. Many non-Chinese artists joined ranks, including Kuan Yun-shih (1286-1324), K'ang-li Nao-nao (1295-1345), Sa Tu-la (ca. 1300-ca. 1350), Yu Ch'ueh (1303-1358), and Po-yen Pu-hua (Bayan Buga tegin, ?-1359). Using traditional art forms of the Chinese, they created a new approach in painting and calligraphy that was both unadorned and straightforward.
By the late
Yuan (mid-14th century), however, civil order disintegrated and the path
to office became closed for scholars. They did what was necessary to
survive in these times of trouble, and reclusion became an increasingly
viable and popular choice among scholars. Needless to say, exchange
between ethnic groups was curtailed considerably. Consequently, scholars
such as Huang
(1280-1354), Ni Tsan
Wang Meng (ca. 1308-1385) used painting to express the ideal of
seclusion to a select group of friends. The result was that the Yuan
dynasty became the defining period in Chinese literati painting and had a
profound effect on later generations of scholar-artists.