METROPOLITAN MUSEUM OF ART  Exhibition Sept. 28, 2010 - Jan. 2, 2011

The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty

This exhibition covers the period from 1215, the year of Khubilai's birth, to 1368, the year of the fall of the Yuan dynasty in China founded by Khubilai Khan, and features every art form, including paintings, sculpture, gold and silver, textiles, ceramics, lacquer, and other decorative arts, religious and secular. The exhibition highlights new art forms and styles generated in China as a result of the unification of China under the Yuan dynasty and the massive influx of craftsmen from all over the vast Mongol Empire—with reverberations in Italian art of the fourteenth century.


Edited by James C. Y. Watt (Qu Zhiren)

Our groundbreaking catalogue explores the art and culture produced during the time of Khubilai Khan and extending through the Yuan Dynasty (1271–1368), when China was ruled by the Mongols. In 1215, the year Khubilai Khan (1215–1294) was born, the Mongols made their first major incursion into North China and initiated a period of extraordinary creativity in the arts that was encouraged by the confluence of many cultures and ethnic groups. This period lasted approximately 150 years and had its greatest flowering in the Yuan dynasty, founded by Khubilai in 1271 and lasting until 1368.

The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty is a comprehensive study of the art and culture produced at this time by the Chinese and by the highly skilled craftsmen from Western and Central Asia, who were selected for their abilities and brought together in Northern Chinese workshops, where they exchanged ideas, styles, and art forms. The works they produced created a new art style that would influence the arts of China in all subsequent periods. In the ten essays included in this volume, art historians discuss the origins of new art forms, daily life in Yuan China, in particular at the imperial court and in the capital cities of Xanadu (Shangdu) and Dadu (Beijing), and the impact on the arts of the religions practiced at this time, including Buddhism, Daoism, Christianity, Manichaeism, Hinduism, and Islam. The essays are accompanied by beautifully reproduced color illustrations of works from Chinese and international collections.

360 pages, 407 illustrations (379 in full color, 28 black-and-white) with 2 color maps and 2 black-and-white maps. 9'' x 12''. Paper or Hardcover; clothbound with jacket.

Daily Life

The first section of the exhibition presents objects that relate to daily life in Yuan China. They include examples of men’s and women’s dresses and ornaments; vessels for ritual purposes and everyday use; and articles associated with travel. In every category, there are objects made using in traditional forms and decoration and others that display influences from Northern and Central Asia that arrived with the Mongols. Nearly all objects in this section are recent archaeological finds from China.

Women's Dress and Ornaments

The key article of formal dress of elite Mongol women was the tall gugu headdress, which varied in regions of the vast Mongol Empire and became more elaborate during the Yuan dynasty. The gugu usually was worn with a voluminous robe featuring decorative bands at the neck and wrists and a train carried by an attendant. Women at court also wore less formal yet richly decorated overjackets, two of which are included in the exhibition.

Men's Dress and Ornaments

The signature garment of Mongol men was a robe with a cummerbund-like waist, probably deriving from Jin-dynasty antecedents. Surviving fragments suggest that such robes were made from various fabrics associated with specific ethnic groups. For the Mongols' elaborate zhisun feast, robes usually made of cloth of gold (nasij) were further embellished with pearls and precious stones.

Less formally, long garments with decorative badges on the chest and back were worn, with belts, for activities such as hunting. The exhibition includes a belt with a jade belt hook, gold plaques for a leather belt, a hat ornament in gold, and other jade objects.


During the Yuan dynasty, all roads led to Dadu (now Beijing), the city built by Khubilai Khan as the Great Capital of his empire. At regular intervals along this vast network of roads were relay stations where travelers could find food and lodging and purchase supplies. To take advantage of these facilities, the traveler had to carry a pass (fu, pai, or paizi). The passes usually were made of metal, though the material varied depending on the rank of the traveler and the urgency of the mission.

On view in the exhibition are two standard types of passes, as well as pottery figures of a caravan and of a man leading a horse, and a set of gold sheets that covered a saddle.

Ritual Vessels

People in the Yuan period followed the traditional Chinese custom of using ritual vessels to make offerings in religious and ancestral temples.

The exhibition includes several examples of ritual vessels used in North China throughout the Yuan dynasty. Of particular interest are the two bronze vessels donated by the Grand Princess Sengge Ragi (ca. 1282–1332), sister of two successive emperors, to temples in the fief of her husband, the duke of Lu (in eastern Inner Mongolia).


The exhibition includes several examples of wine vessels and drinking cups. The ceramic containers were used for transporting wine, the silver bottles for serving it. Porcelain cups of the Yuan period, like the example on view in the exhibition, are often copies after gold and silver prototypes of steppe origin. The glass cup and saucer on view are the only extant examples of their kind from the Yuan dynasty.


Chinese theater reached its full maturity during the Yuan dynasty. Evolving from short plays, skits, and monologues, Yuan drama became a full-fledged form of multimedia entertainment that offered plot, acting, dialogue, music, and dance. More than nine hundred plays were produced during the Yuan period on subjects that included heroism, traditional morals, the criticism of corrupt officials, romance, and fairy tales.

Actors and actresses were cast in roles categorized by type, among them male lead, female lead, narrator, and comic character. They dressed in elaborate costumes and often wore exaggerated makeup. Theaters in the city were roofed structures with seats arranged in ascending rows around the three sides of the stage. In the countryside, stages were built in temples where actors would perform during religious and seasonal festivals. Scenery comprised large backdrops of decorated hangings with openings for the actors' entrances and exits. Musical accompaniment was provided by a drum, a clapper, and a flute.

Of all forms of entertainment, Yuan drama held the greatest appeal, drawing an audience from both the social elite and the ordinary marketplace crowd. Its lasting influence on subsequent forms of theater in China can still be observed in present-day Chinese opera.


When building their capital cities of Xanadu (or Shangdu, the Upper Capital), Zhongdu (the Middle Capital), and Dadu (the Great Capital), the Mongols adopted many Chinese architectural traditions. Not only did their urban plans adhere to Chinese specifications, their style of building stuck closely to existing models, thus asserting both their legitimacy as rulers within the imperial lineage and their perpetuation of fundamental Chinese beliefs and institutions. However, some of the decorative motifs, such as the dragon on a floral ground seen on a column from Shangdu, are those prevalent in Central Asia at the time.

The large stone architectural elements on display in the exhibition were excavated from sites in the Yuan capitals of Shangdu and Zhongdu. The two stone lions, one in Western style and the other a Chinese version, are from houses in Dadu. The wooden house on view, a piece of burial furniture, is precisely modeled after domestic architecture in its construction.

Religious Life


When the Mongols first entered China in the early thirteenth century, Chan (Zen) was the most prominent of the several forms of Buddhism practiced in China, but under Khubilai Khan, the imperial house converted to Esoteric Buddhism, which had been brought to China by Tibetan lamas. The consequent influence of the Nepali-Tibetan (or, more broadly, Indo-Himalayan) tradition on Buddhist art at the imperial court was transformative; on view in the exhibition are several bronze sculptures that are representative of this new, hybrid style. Also on view are objects that were used during elaborate Esoteric rituals, among them painted mandalas and sculptures of terrifying protective deities.

Outside the imperial court, Chan Buddhism still held sway, especially among the educated classes. Chan emphasized meditation and mindfulness in all activities as the means to achieve enlightenment. The exhibition includes paintings by and portraits of several Chan monks, including the famous Chan master Zhongfen Mingben (1263–1323). Other works on view were produced in North and South China before the Mongol conquest and reunification. These include paintings and sculptures associated with the Pure Land tradition, whose adherents were devotees of the celestial Buddha Amitabha. Also noteworthy is the imagery shared between multiple Buddhist practices, including manifestations of the Bodhisattva Avalokiteshvara (Guanyin) and representations of the guardians known as arhats, or luohans.


Daoism, an indigenous philosophy and polytheistic religion deeply rooted in Chinese culture, proved useful to the pantheistic Mongols in promoting their intention to rule. Ritual and the quest for immortality—the foundations of Daoist practice—appealed to the shamanistic nomads. The existing orders, which had a strong following, provided vehicles for controlling large segments of the population. The Mongol emperors supported different orders at different times, according to their needs. During periods of political turmoil, both Daoists and Confucian literati sought refuge in Daoist (and Buddhist) temples.

Daoist art from the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries reveals an intriguing account of the religious and social environment of Yuan China. During this period, Buddhist and Confucian ideas were incorporated into Daoism as part of a mutual interchange between the two traditions. All these connections are reflected in the visual arts. Daoist adepts and adherents, as expected, created Daoist art, but court artists, artisans, and workshops also received commissions to produce Daoist material. Those involved in making this type of art brought various artistic traditions to their projects, and thus stylistic distinctions often blur and iconographies overlap.

Other Religions

In addition to Buddhism and Daoism, a number of other religions were practiced in Yuan China. They were introduced by peoples of various faiths who came to China as traders or in the service of the Mongols. With the exception of Islam, these religions did not spread among the native population.

In the trading port of Quanzhou, on the South China coast, Indian traders built Hindu temples, fragments of which survive to this day. Followers of Islam produced steles and tombstones inscribed in Arabic.

Nestorian Christianity (spreading from Syria beginning in the fifth century) and Manichaeism (originating in Sasanid Persia) were known in China by the seventh century but retreated following a period of religious persecution in the mid-ninth century; they were later reintroduced by peoples of these faiths under the Mongols. While Nestorian objects can be found in Inner Mongolia and Quanzhou, there are few extant artifacts associated with Manichaeism, which is, however, known to have been practiced in Quanzhou and other port cities. In this exhibition are two rare paintings that appear to be Buddhist but have, through recent scholarship, been identified as Manichaean, demonstrating the syncretism common to Chinese religious belief. Due to the paintings' fragility, they will alternate in the exhibition galleries, but images of each are available online.

Paintings and Calligraphy

The Yuan dynasty marked a revolution in Chinese painting, a change that can be ascribed to two contingent factors. The first was the demise of court patronage, and with it a major source of support and training for professional artists. As a result of this demise, the literati began to paint for one another, collecting and writing on each other's works. Such works now form the major corpus of paintings that survive from the Yuan and later periods.

The dominant artist of the early Yuan dynasty was Zhao Mengfu (1254–1322). Some of his most accomplished paintings are on view in the exhibition. Not only a gifted painter, Zhao was also a scholar-writer, and his calligraphy served as a model for generations of artists in the centuries that followed.

The paintings and calligraphies presented span the entire Mongol-Yuan period, from the mid-thirteenth century—when the Mongols were in North China, before the unification of the country under Khubilai—to the end of the Yuan dynasty, when most artists resided in areas around the southern city of Hangzhou.

Decorative Arts and Textiles

The Mongols had at their command various textile traditions from throughout their vast empire—gold motifs on a solid background from northern China, vibrant and colorful designs from Central Asia, elegant monochromes from southern China, and overall patterns in gold from Western and Central Asia. The Mongols especially favored the latter, called nasij.

Nasij usually was made in lampas, a weave unknown in China. Early in the Mongol conquest, between 1219 and 1222, the Mongols moved thousands of weavers from the western to the eastern part of their growing empire. They set up workshops for the manufacture of nasij where artisans from various parts of Asia worked together, resulting in the rapid dissemination and modification of textile technology. In the early 1270s under Khubilai Khan, the workshops were moved and consolidated in the capital of Dadu.

Open trade under the Mongols changed textile history, enhancing designs in both the east and the west. For instance, revitalized motifs returned from Central Asia to China, and the vivid patterns of Central Asian textiles that reached Europe clearly inspired Italian textile designs of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The Yuan dynasty was one of the most innovative periods in the decorative arts of China. The native arts of pottery and lacquer were transformed by the coming together of artistic traditions from the north and the south, while craftsmen brought into China from other areas of the greater Mongol Empire introduced new skills to weaving and metalwork.

Relative to the decorative arts of previous periods, those of the Yuan dynasty can be distinguished by a predilection for three-dimensional form and elaborate surface decoration. The former is demonstrated by high-relief carving on lacquer. Painted decoration was applied to all types of Yuan ceramics, of which the blue-and-white porcelain of Jingdezhen is the best known and appreciated. Both technically and artistically, the decorative arts of the Yuan period remain unsurpassed.



The vitality and imagination found in all media during the Mongol Yuan dynasty (1271–1368) is due in large part to the creative synthesis of cultural and artistic traditions that defines this period in Chinese history. In addition to reuniting artistic traditions from north and south China, the Yuan dynasty also saw the use of Central and West Asian and Indo-Himalayan techniques, styles, and images in the art of the late thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Motifs from one part of Asia were often mixed with others in ceramics, metalwork, and other goods produced at this time.

The interest in framing a surface, and, in particular, the use of a cartouche filled with additional imagery, is one of the hallmarks of the art of the Yuan period, and is shared with the art of the Islamic world.

The large, broad lotus petals often decorating the base of ceramics and metalwork, on the other hand, derive from Indo-Himalayan traditions, in which such motifs are usually found in Buddhist art. Buddhist imagery that mixed traditions from India, Nepal, and Tibet was influential in Yuan-period China. The flowering of this style is usually attributed to a Nepali artist named Anige (1244–1306) who rose to a position of prominence at the court in Dadu (now Beijing). However, it also reflects the decision by Khubilai Khan to patronize and practice the Sakya tradition of Tibetan Buddhism. A similar blending of Indian and Nepali imagery is found in Tibetan art produced in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.

Source: Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

The exhibition is made possible by Bank of America.

The exhibition is also made possible by the E. Rhodes and Leona B. Carpenter Foundation, The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, The Dillon Fund, The Henry Luce Foundation, Wilson and Eliot Nolen, The Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Foundation, the Oceanic Heritage Foundation, the National Endowment for the Arts, Florence and Herbert Irving, and Jane Carroll.

It is supported by an indemnity from the Federal Council on the Arts and the Humanities. The catalogue is made possible by The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.


Further Information:

Art & Trade on the Silk Road

The International Dunhuang Project: The Silk Road Online

The British Library

The International Dunhuang Project is "a ground-breaking international collaboration to make information and images of all manuscripts, paintings, textiles and artefacts from Dunhuang and archaeological sites of the Eastern Silk Road freely available on the Internet and to encourage their use through educational and research programs." This website is a truly comprehensive resource for teaching about the Silk Road. See especially the EDUCATION>TEACH section for teaching websites on various topics, including Buddhism on the Silk Road, medicine on the Silk Road, and cultural dialogue on the Silk Road.

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Ancient Trade Routes between Europe and Asia

The Metropolitan Museum of Art

A brief discussion of ancient trade routes between Europe and Asia, including the Silk and Spice Routes and the Incense Route. "New inventions, religious beliefs, artistic styles, languages, and social customs, as well as goods and raw materials, were transmitted by people moving from one place to another to conduct business."

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Art of the Silk Road  
University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities
Online exhibit "organized as part of Silk Road Seattle, a collaborative public education project exploring cultural interaction across Eurasia from the first century BCE to the sixteenth century CE." With text and images organized into four categories: 1) Cultures (with a timeline from 400 BCE to 1600 CE); 2) Religions (Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Nestorianismism, Islam, Manichaeism); 3) Trade (text about trade routes, horses and camels, silk); 4) Intercultural Exchange.

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Buddhist Art and the Trade Routes  
Asia Society
An extensive site, covering three main topics: 1) Trade Routes; 2) Buddhism and its Imagery; and 3) India: Origins of Buddhist Art. Also discusses the Buddhist art of specific regions -- Korea/Japan; China/Mongolia; Himalayas; Southeast Asia; and Sri Lanka. With maps, images, a glossary of terms, and bibliography.

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The Caves of the Thousand Buddhas  
The British Museum
An introduction to the "Caves of the Thousand Buddhas," or Qianfodong, "situated at Mogao, about 25 kilometres southeast of the oasis town of Dunhuang in Gansu province, western China, in the middle of the desert. ... At some point in the early 11th century, an incredible archive - with up to 50,000 documents, hundreds of paintings, together with textiles and other artefacts - was sealed up in one of the caves. Its entrance concealed behind a wall painting, the cave remained hidden from sight for centuries, until 1900, when it was discovered by Wang Yuanlu, a Daoist monk who had appointed himself abbot and guardian of the caves." With 19 images, each with explanatory text.

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In the Footsteps of Marco Polo: A Journey through the Met to the Land of the Great Khan  
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Follows the 24,000-mile journey of Marco Polo (1254-1324) from Italy through the Middle East and Central Asia to China and the court of Khubilai Khan.

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International Dunhuang Project: Silk Road Exhibition  
The British Library
An extensive image archive featuring manuscripts, paintings, textiles, sculptures, murals, coins, and other artifacts from six Silk Road excavation sites: 1) Samarkand; 2) Khotan; 3) Kroraina; 4) Miran; 5) Dunhang; 6) Gaochang. Excellent descriptive text with most objects. Also includes maps, site diagrams, and some photographs.

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Luxury Arts of the Silk Route Empires  
Freer Gallery of Art and Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution
"Two thousand years before today's "global economy," an exchange network linked the continent of Asia via the Silk Route. Between the first and eighth centuries of the common era, the empires and states of Asia often came into conflict as they competed for territory and other resources or sought to dominate their neighbors in religious and political arenas." A brief illustrated guide, focused mostly on metalwork and pottery.

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Monks and Merchants: Silk Road Treasures from Northwest China, Gansu and Ningxia, 4th-7th Century  
Asia Society
Features more than 35 objects organized into the following topics: 1) Heavenly Horses; 2) Nomadic Rulers; 3) Buddhism and China; 4) Buddhist Cave Temples; 5) Bodhisattvas; 6) Monks; 7) Merchants and Currencies; 8) The Tang Dynasty. Each topic has overview text, and each object is accompanied by short descriptive text. An additional topic on the Silk Road itself gives extensive background information on the geographical, historical, religious, and cultural context of the Silk Road.

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Museum Collections of Silk Road Art  
University of Washington, Simpson Center for the Humanities
"[A]nnotated descriptions of and links to the websites of major art museums exhibiting objects of interest for the study of the Silk Road" from the University of Washington's Silk Road Seattle, "an ongoing public education project using the 'Silk Road' theme to explore cultural interaction across Eurasia from the beginning of the Common Era (A. D.) to the Seventeenth Century."

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Playing with Shadows: An Introduction to Shadow Puppetry  
The Kennedy Center, ArtsEdge
"Discover the secrets behind the art of shadow puppetry in this multimedia exploration, designed for grades 5-8, which explores this age-old art form through animations, videos, interactive activities, and more." With questions for discussion and two related lesson plans (see left-hand column): "Puppets on the Move: China and the Silk Road" and "Shadows & Light, Science & Puppetry."

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Silk Road Encounters Education Kit  
The Silk Road Project
"As a symbol of the crossroads between civilizations, peoples, and cultures, the Silk Roads offer rich materials for students to explore diverse but inter-related topics on geography, trade, art, music, religion, and history." Download the TEACHERS GUIDE and SOURCEBOOK, both in .pdf format, under Resources at the far right. The TEACHERS GUIDE includes 6 model lesson plans that "bring together activities that reinforce students' basic knowledge of the Silk Road with concepts on the diversity of exchanges in the arts, belief systems and ideas." The SOURCEBOOK "provides the background material you need to familiarize yourself with the Silk Roads as you plan your activities on this theme."

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Traveling the Silk Road: Educator's Guide  
American Museum of Natural History
Online educator's guide to the 2010 exhibition at the AMNH that takes visitors "along the world's oldest international highway, on a voyage that spans six centuries (AD 600 to 1200). (The exhibition) showcases four representative cities: Xi'an, China's Tang Dynasty capital; Turfan, a bustling oasis; Samarkand, home of prosperous merchants; and Baghdad, a meeting place for scholars, scientists, and philosophers." Featuring activities for grades 3-5, 6-8, and 9-12, standards correlations, map, glossary, and more.

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Traveling the Silk Road: My Journey on the Silk Road  
American Museum of Natural History
An online "travel journal" to introduce visitors to the 2010 AMNH exhibition on the Silk Road. With an interactive map and "stops" in Baghdad, Samarkand, Turfan, and Xi'an. The section on Xi'an covers silk-making and music of the Tang-dynasty era.

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Treasures Along the Silk Roads  
Asia Society
Lesson plan in which students generate word maps that act as creative writing prompts, using images of art objects from the Silk Roads.

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