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Elegant Gathering of the Princess: The Culture of Appreciating and Collecting Art at the Mongol Yuan Court

  • #Calligraphy
  • #Painting


On the 23rd day of the third lunar month in the third year of the Zhizhi reign in the Yuan dynasty (corresponding to April 28, 1323), a prominent Mongolian princess by the name of Sengge Ragi held an elegant gathering at Tianqing Temple south of the capital Dadu (modern Beijing). Li Shilu, Director of the Imperial Library, was responsible for the gathering and members of the princess's imperial household assisted in organizing it. During the event, she took out works of Chinese painting and calligraphy from her collection for the appreciation of those in attendance and invited them to write inscriptions. This elegant gathering has come to be seen as a means for the ruling Mongols to proclaim their acceptance and appreciation of the high arts of Chinese painting and calligraphy. Modern scholars have also studied surviving and recorded works with the princess's collection seal, "Library of the Imperial Elder Sister," to compile a list of painting and calligraphy that was once in her collection. From the perspective of cultural history, their research offers a way to analyze the acquired tastes of appreciating and collecting art on the part of the Mongol rulers.

Princess Sengge Ragi was the great-granddaughter of the renowned Kublai Khan. Her grandfather was Prince Zhenjin and her father Darmabala, both also important figures in the Mongol Yuan ruling clan. She was also not the only member to take part in activities related to collecting art. Her son-in-law, Tugh Temür, who became Emperor Wenzong, established the Kuizhang Pavilion. There, he viewed rare books and participated in the appreciation of art with academicians, using seals with the "Tianli" (for his reign name) and "Kuizhang" characters to mark his collection. Later, Togon Temür (the last Yuan emperor known as Shundi) used the seal "Treasure of the Xuanwen Pavilion" on Chinese painting and calligraphy at his court. These three figures all had important works of the Song and Yuan dynasties in their collections.

This special exhibition features 43 works, many of which are masterpieces from the Song and Yuan dynasties. Since some are of "restricted" status, they must be rotated to accommodate shorter display periods. The exhibit is not merely an opportunity to present famous artworks from the collections of these three members of the Mongol Yuan imperial clan. By providing a glimpse of the imperial holdings, the display demonstrates, from a Yuan cultural perspective, the significance of Mongol rulers' involvement in Chinese painting and calligraphy. In contrast with previous studies emphasizing the sinicizing role of Chinese art on Mongol rulers, this exhibit focuses on showing the unique interaction among ethnic groups at the time, allowing audiences to witness in concrete terms a new cultural vision of "toleration and acceptance."