Leo J. O'Donovan
The World of Khubilai Khan at the Metropolitan Museum of Art
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If you have ever wondered what the great city of Xanadu in Northern China looked like when Marco Polo arrived there around 1275, you can get a good idea by visiting New York City’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, where “The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” will be dazzling today’s travelers for the next several months.

Made possible by remarkable loans—half from China itself, most of the other half from museums in the United States, Canada, Japan, Russia, England and Germany—this is one of the Met’s most ambitious shows ever. It is accompanied by “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change,” drawn mostly from the Met’s own holdings and an event in itself.

From the moment you enter the Khubilai Khan show, passing between two enormous stone sentinel figures from Beijing, you are in a wholly other world, one of autocratic power but also highly refined artistic skill and sensibility. Khubilai Khan (1215–1294), grandson of Genghis Khan, was an accomplished administrator, if also an incorrigible imperialist. Early in life he became deeply interested in Chinese culture and in 1271, even before completing his conquest of the great land to the south in 1279, he inaugurated the Yuan (“beginning”) Dynasty, which lasted until 1368. Portraits of the Great Khan himself and of his favorite consort, Chabi—actually cartoons for what would be larger portraits woven in silk—welcome you to the daily life of their time, and especially their court. 

For this first section of the show, James C. Y. Watt, the Met’s chair of Asian Art, has led a team in borrowing luxury items mostly unearthed in recent excavations—for the women beautifully embroidered short over-jackets and silk shoes, for men a robe woven with thread of gold, a brimmed hat and jade belt buckles. There are also ritual vessels, gold drinking cups and a delightful pottery set of attendants, guards and animals making up a caravan on its way either to the Great Khan Khubilai’s summer capital of Shangdu in inner Mongolia (Xanadu to the West) or the imperial capital in Dadu (today’s Beijing).

These more private allusions are set in a broader context by objects suggesting Yuan architecture as well as the widespread passion for theater, which flourished during the Yuan dynasty. More than 900 plays were produced on subjects ranging from heroism, traditional morals and official corruption to romance and fairy tales. Plotting was strong, with developed dialogue, music and dance, as well as actors playing “types”—the leading male and female, the comic character, the narrator. Temples often had stages on their grounds, and the Met’s show includes a large replica of a stage complete with the standard characters.

In the architecture of the time, animals had strong symbolic presence. A large and forbidding roof-ridge ornament in the shape of a dragon’s head, in pottery glazed green and golden brown, comes from one of the main halls of the Yonglegong (perpetual Happiness Monastery), a famous Daoist temple. Two dragons with a more decorative but still imposing feel are carved fluently in high relief on a floral ground for a stone post from the Imperial Audience Hall. Reminding us how much of the material in the show comes from archaeological digs is a piece of burial furniture, a wooden model of a house that once rested on a coffin that was excavated less than 40 years ago.

At the opening of the exhibition, the Met’s director, Thomas P. Campbell, spoke of its exploring “the extraordinary network of cultural interchange in a period of optimism and rebirth.” Nowhere is the resulting hybridity more evident than in two galleries devoted to religion during the Yuan period.

While Chan (in Japanese Zen) Buddhism had been the dominant religion before the Mongol conquest (and remained so outside imperial circles), the Great Khan himself was persuaded by the trusted and religious Chabi to embrace Esoteric, or Tibetan, Buddhism. Two recently excavated hanging scrolls illustrate the transition, one each of the Bodhisattva Manjushri (representing wisdom) and the Bodhisattva Samantabhadhra (representing virtue) from about 1200, which originally would have flanked an image of the Buddha Shakyamuni. Dominating the gallery is the mandala of Yamantaka-Vajrathairava (from the Met), a cosmic diagram in silk tapestry that combines Central Asian weaving technique with Indo-Himalayan imagery.

Daoism, indigenous and polytheistic, also continued to be widespread in the newly united China, and a hanging scroll shows “The Daoist Immortal Yunfang Initiating Lü Chunyang into the Secret of Immortality” (c. 1300). (Yunfang, with his intense blue eyes and raised index finger, is a religious authority figure if ever there was one.) The tombstone stele of a Mongol official, inscribed in Arabic and Chinese, recalls the spread of Islam among the native population. After 1204, when a Nestorian woman married the son of Genghis Khan, that branch of Christianity enjoyed imperial favor, and Nestorian crosses are evidence for it. Typically, for example, a granite Nestorian Headstone shows a Greek cross symbolizing the risen  Christ above Chinese-style clouds--artfully fusing imported and local imagery. In addition, Manichaeism, first introduced from Sasanid Persia in the 7th century, saw a revival under the Mongols, and Hindu temples were built by Indian traders in Quanzhou, on the Southeast China coast. It was a period of religious pluralism China was never to see again.

In 1234 in the north and 1272 in the south, the Mongols discontinued the civil service examinations that had been the basis for entry into Chinese public service. (Khubilai Khan himself never learned Chinese and distrusted former Song officials.) With the subsequent demise of court patronage, the literati or scholar-artists began to paint and write for one another, resulting in a radical aesthetic change that prized affective self-expression more than truth to nature. 

No one represented the shift more subtly or successfully than Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), the dominant artist of the early Yuan, and for anyone who does not already know his work, perhaps the chief discovery of the exhibition. With a facility in rendering horses that recalled the Tang dynasty’s reverence for the animal, he moved gradually, as in “Water Village” (1302), to a more dreamlike, even abstract landscape art that gave painting and calligraphy equal importance and made him the model artist for generations to come.

The final section of “The World of Khubilai Khan,” on the decorative arts, includes arguably the most beautiful object currently on exhibition in New York: a canopy with two golden phoenixes embroidered on a field of delicate flowers in pastel shades, from the Met itself. The Mongols valued textiles above all other art forms, and as with the great mandala in the gallery devoted to Buddhist-related pieces, many a Western eye will read the canopy from a distance as a painting. Similarly refined, and even more dramatically indicating the fusion of cultures, is a “Rug with Design of a Prunus Branch,” a never-before exhibited pile carpet from Kyoto with a purely Chinese plum tree branch woven in its center but a pseudo-Kufic border revealing Islamic influence.

Along with black and red lacquer ware, rare textile fragments and elaborately decorated metalwork, gorgeous pottery is also on display. It ranges from a ravishingly simple glazed blue porcelain bottle decorated with random purple splashes (done by adding a copper compound to the blue glaze) to a range of the blue and white porcelain most often associated with China (made possible by the introduction of cobalt from Iran in the 1330s). Two spectacular examples of the latter have been generously lent by New York collectors.

To the richness of the great loan show, “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change,” some 70 works drawn principally from the Met’s collection, adds depth and a discreet critical edge. Porcelain, pottery and lacquer ware are included in the Yuan show, but the emphasis is on changes in the style of painting and its increasing fusion with poetry and calligraphy—the so-called “three perfections.”

As the show underlines, when artists who had worked under the Song dynasty were subjected to the harsh new political hierarchy of the Mongols, many elected a self-enforced retirement (calling themselves “left-over subjects”) and withdrew into art as “noble recluses.” Large scale hanging scrolls of silk gave way to hand scrolls and small-scale hanging scrolls of paper (which absorbed ink in fact more expressively). Struggling with the issue of loyalty, Zhao Mengfu chose “seclusion at court,” working under the new rulers but avoiding participation in politics and public events. (Several beautiful pieces by him, including a rare orchid and rock paired with a sprig of bamboo painted by his wife, are included.)

Zhao’s commitment to “restrained understatement” inspired masters of the Late Yuan, including Wu Zhen (1280-1354) and, especially, Ni Zan (1306-1374). Ni had lived as a dilettante, with a studied archaic style. When the demands of Mongol tax officials forced him from his home, he entered upon a pilgrim’s and sometimes refugee’s life, painting with increasing fidelity to his ideal of “utter simplicity and restraint.” Four superb scrolls by him, including “Wind among the Trees on the Riverbank” (1363), complement one in the Khubilai Kahn show.

For over 30 years, the Met has offered its public landmark introductions to China’s art and culture. “The World of Khubilai Khan” and its companion show carry this tradition to a new level, with aesthetic revelations that expand our horizons but turn also into questions about our common humanity. They remind us of how the majestic and the mundane mysteriously mix in the experience of authority, the ritual of theater, the traditions of religion, the search for beauty that both comforts and challenges. Art this refined inevitably opens our eyes as it transports us. Here the rapture of vision takes us into another world indeed, only to find that its sense of human life asks how willing we are to see it shared with our own.

“The World of  Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” will be on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through January 2, 2011. “The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change” will be on view through January 9, 2011.

View a slideshow of select images from exhibit.

Leo J. O'Donovan is president emeritus of Georgetown University.

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