Mongols in World History | Asia for Educators

Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), artist

Zhao Mengfu is widely regarded as the greatest painter and calligrapher of the Yuan Dynasty.

Descended from the Song imperial family, Zhao served the Mongols as an official in the Ministry of War, as well as in other agencies.

Khubilai Khan and later Mongol emperors admired Zhao's painting and continued to promote and reward him, offering him the position of President of the Hanlin Academy, the most prestigious body of scholars in China, in 1316. Zhao, in turn, recognized that his patrons appreciated themes related to animals, and he produced renowned paintings of horses, sheep, and goats, among numerous other subjects.

Zhao also appreciated the artistic freedom the Mongols provided, as he repeatedly condemned what he perceived to be the overly restrictive, if not stifling, standards of the Song Imperial Academy of Painting. Chinese scholars of his own time and of later dynasties condemned Zhao for renouncing his own heritage and serving the "barbarians," but he defended himself by arguing that each individual had to decide on his own what was best for China, adding that the Mongols had unified and brought peace to China after centuries of disunity and disorder.

Guan Daosheng (1262-1319), Zhao Mengfu's wife, was a renowned painter in her own right. Her primary subjects were bamboo, flowers, and birds — themes considered to be "minor" by Chinese connoisseurs — so she was not accorded much attention in traditional times. Guan's later paintings were influenced by her devotion to Chan Buddhism. Her son Zhao Yong and her grandson Zhao Lin also became painters.

More about Zhao Mengfu:
The Autumn Colors on the Ch'iao and Hua Mountains: A Landscape, by Li Chu-tsing (Ascona: Artibus Asiae Publishers, 1965)
• "The Role of Wu-hsing in Early Yuan Artistic Development under Mongol Rule," in China under Mongol Rule, edited by John D. Langlois (Princeton University Press, 1981)
• "The Freer Sheep and Goat and Chao Meng-fu's Horse Paintings," Artibus Asiae 30:4 (1968)

More about Guan Daosheng:
• "Kuan Tao-sheng," by Morris Rossabi, in the Bulletin of Sung Yuan Studies, Volume 21 (1989)

About painting during the Yuan Dynasty:
Hills Beyond A River, by James Cahill (New York: Weatherhill, 1976)

About the dispute between Zhao and the scholars:
• "Confucian Eremitism in the Yuan Period," by Frederick Mote, in The Confucian Persuasion, edited by Arthur Wright (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1960)