Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times

Landscape,  By Chen Shizeng (1876-1923)

china landscape rumors
Chen Shizeng continued the tradition of literati art into the twentieth century, when many artists were looking to the West for inspiration.  This picture is in the public domain.

In the last few weeks I published yet another book.  This one traces the history of China by looking at its traditional art.  The Prologue to the book is offered below.


When people think of protest, meditation and quiet repose do not come to mind. But these can be powerful forms of protest, and in fact were during the Yuan Dynasty of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Covering a span of about a hundred years, the Yuan Dynasty was a time of Mongol rule. Protest against this regime was carried out by scholar artists, known as literati. The most notable of these literati were the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty.

The Four Masters painted, although at times they also wrote verse. Their art was so subtle that it was overlooked by the Mongols. This was essential, for to be noticed was to invite death. The Mongols were ruthless and slaughtered without hesitation. In these massacres, no one was spared. The message was clear: submit or die.

And so, when the Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty staged their quiet revolt, they did so with the understanding that they could expect no mercy if the Mongols suspected the intent of literati art.

In a culture other than China’s, quiet protest might not have been of any consequence. However, this was China, where tradition and noble character were revered. This reverence was rooted in Confucianism, which had been the dominant belief system in China since the fifth century BCE.

Confucius lived in a time of turmoil. It was a disintegration of order that led him to develop a model for behavior. His model became a moral guide in China through the centuries.  For more than a millennium before Mongol rule, Confucianism was the unifying ethos of the Chinese. Education and civil service were based on Confucian principles. It was impossible to be employed by the government, which was essential for career advancement, without a deep knowledge of Confucian scholarship.

As Mongols conquered China in the thirteenth century, moving first across the North and then the South, members of China’s scholar elite withdrew from public service. These scholars retired completely from active life, though some continued to meet in small groups in order to exchange ideas, art and writings.

It was to this elite group of literati that the Four Masters belonged. The Masters made a conscientious effort to emulate the style and themes of earlier generations. They studied Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism. The world view of these three philosophies infused literati art.

According to Confucius, a noble person needed to be schooled in Six Arts. One of these Arts was calligraphy. Over time, calligraphy grew to be an essential skill for every member of China’s elite class. Expression through brush strokes was believed to reflect the quality of an individual’s character. Moving from calligraphy to ink painting was a natural progression.

china ink painting Han dynasty rumors excerpt Gentlemen_in_conversation,_Eastern_Han_Dynasty

The picture above is an excerpt from a Han Dynasty (206 BCE–220 CE) ink painting, Gentlemen in Conversation. The picture illustrates the application of simple brush and ink, using classic calligraphic strokes, to delineate a figure. It is from this early demonstration of ink art that the more developed tradition of literati landscape painting grew. The Four Masters of the Yuan Dynasty were an essential part of this tradition. As their work became more personal, it more closely hewed to the Confucian principle of character. If calligraphy was an expression of a person’s worth, then the highly individual, expressive paintings of the Four Masters were windows that offered a view of the artist’s noble character.

ni zan portrait by Xu Zhang site
Portrait of Ni Zan by Xu Zhang (Qing Dynasty)

While literati painting did not begin during the Yuan Dynasty, it was during this era that this class of art assumed greatest importance. As amateurs, literati artists did not conform to the dictates of a ruling elite, but rather to the impulse of a personal aesthetic. Over time, the work of the literati came to be regarded as more intrinsically ‘artistic’ than formal academic art.

After the Mongols were driven from China, the stature of literati artists grew. The importance of these artists to Chinese culture was recognized and their work imitated. The emulation of literati art continued through successive centuries, even into the present.

As the twentieth century dawned, Western influences crept into traditional ink painting. However, many Chinese artists argued for respecting tradition. Certainly, in the twentieth century, tradition would be tested as it was during Mongol rule.

Republicanism, occupation and revolution would follow in rapid succession. Tradition, in art and in every aspect of Chinese culture, would suffer blows. But in the end, tradition would win out and a revival of the ancient aesthetic would regain its prestige.

This book will offer the reader a variety of pictures. Some pictures will give a glimpse into the history of the circumstances that gave rise to literati landscape painting. Some will illustrate the enduring aesthetic of this art through the ages. The book attempts to show the relationship between art and history. It will highlight the unique role that art and philosophy have played in the formation and preservation of China’s national character.

Many readers may not be familiar with Chinese literati art. Many may see only a tenuous connection between the history of literati art and current events in China. This would be a mistaken view. In order to understand today’s China, its past must be considered. More than most nations, China has been defined and continues to be defined by its long traditions.

The pictures chosen for inclusion here will take the reader on a journey through history. Mongols, including Genghis and Kublai Khan, will be introduced. Marco Polo and his travels on the Silk Road will be described. This is the universe in which the Four Masters of Yuan created their art. The Masters are part of an epic saga, the saga of art in China’s tradition.

china ink painting rumors2 Han dynasty Gentlemen_in_conversation,_Eastern_Han_Dynasty
The original Han Dynasty (25-220 C.E.) painting, Gentlemen in Conversation


One thought on “Four Masters of Yuan and Literati Art: Tradition in China from Mongol Rule to Modern Times

  1. Pingback: Art in China – Rhythm Prism Publishing

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