In 1232 Tatar hordes coming from Mongolia under the command of Genghis Khan’s third son and heir Ögedei, seized Kaifeng (the capital of Emperor Wanyan Shouxu of the Jin dynasty). Soon later in 1234 the Jin Dynasty collapsed when the Mongols captured Caizhou, invaded southern China and with the assistance of the Song dynasty finished off the Jin in that same year. But it was in 1276 that Genghis’ grandson Kublai Khan took Hangzhou, by then the wealthiest city of China, and after a series of battles the Song were defeated in 1279 bringing an end to the dynasty and finally imposing a Mongol dynasty throughout China: the Yuan.
Under this dynasty (reigned between 1271-1368) literature, theater and novel flourished; instead, art did not experience great progress. However, the Venetian Marco Polo, who lived in China from 1276 to 1292, described a brilliant picture of the luxury that reigned in the court of Khanbaliq by then settled in what would become the current Beijing. In painting, the predilection of the Mongol sovereigns was directed towards the representation of hunting and equestrian scenes in which the painter Ren Renfa (1254–1327) excelled. At the end of the dynasty in the southern area, Wang Meng (ca. 1308 – 1385) and Ni Zan (1301–1374) were recognized as prominent landscape artists.
Soon after, the dynasty founded by Kublai introduced the art of carpet making in China. Silks and ceramics were also produced in abundance, and then the porcelain center of Ching-te-chen stood out as one of the most important, a trend that lasted during the following period (the Ming dynasty).
In 1368 a peasant and Buddhist monk, Zhu Yuanzhang, who assumed the name of Taizu, founded the Ming Dynasty destined to reign for a long time (between 1368-1644) and whose capital was at first placed in Nanjing, until in 1403 it was installed in Beijing the former capital of the emperors of the Yuan dynasty.
The Ming Dynasty (“Bright, Luminous”) was intensely nationalistic and reactionary. Concerned about preserving the Chinese territory from possible invasions, it restored and enlarged the ancient Great Wall erected during the second century, whose other purposes, apart from defense, included border controls that allowed the imposition of duties on goods transported along the Silk Road and the control of immigration and emigration. On the other hand, the Ming organized a few great sea expeditions which abruptly ceased during the first half of the 15th century and since then the coasts were harassed by adventurers or by Japanese corsairs, while China retreated into its former isolation. By a capricious contrast, Europe began to establish direct and regular contacts with China by sea: the first Portuguese navigators arrived in 1513 and the Dutch in 1601.
Except for the founder of the dynasty (Taizu) and its third representative (Yongle), all the Ming rulers died young having lived in seclusion in the vicious atmosphere of the court and having abandoned the management of the state affairs in the hands of eunuchs of the imperial harem. From its beginnings, the Ming dynasty endeavored to re-establish the cultural institutions of the Song period. Its interest in architecture was concentrated on the effort to urbanize the new capital, Beijing, according to a plan presided over by strict ritual geomantic norms: in the center there was the “forbidden city” where only the emperor and the people close to him could live, this area remained enclosed within the “imperial city” and both were surrounded by red walls crowned with yellow tiles. Among the most important buildings of the Ming, which in Beijing or its surroundings managed to be preserved from devastation and ruin, stands out the Temple of Heaven right in the precincts of the capital, begun in 1420 and completed in 1753 under the emperor of the Manchurian dynasty. The Temple of Heaven, located in the southeastern part of central Beijing, was a complex of religious buildings that was visited by the Emperors of the Ming and Qing dynasties for annual ceremonies of prayer to Heaven for good harvest. The Temple grounds include three main groups of constructions, all built according to strict philosophical requirements: the Hall of Prayer for Good Harvests is a magnificent triple-gabled circular building covered with blue tiles and built on three levels of marble stone bases, it was the place where the Emperor prayed for good harvests, it was built completely in wood without the use of nails. In 1889 the original building was burned down by a fire caused by lightning, the actual building was re-built several years later. The other two buildings of the complex include the Imperial Vault of Heaven (a single-gabled circular building, built on a single level of marble stone base) surrounded by a smooth circular wall (the Echo Wall) that can transmit sounds over large distances, and the Circular Mound Altar (the altar proper), located south of the Imperial Vault of Heaven, it is an empty circular platform on three levels of marble stones, each decorated with lavishly carved dragons. Another important building is the shrine of the Emperor Yongle’s mausoleum located in the monumental complex formed by the tombs of the Ming dynasty, about 30 kilometers from Beijing.
With the Ming continued the pictorial tradition of the previous dynasty: the works by Shen Zhou (1427-1509), Tang Yin (1470-1524), Wen Zhengming (1470-1559) and Qiu Ying (1494?-1552) are great examples. Collectively, these four painters are known traditionally as the Four Masters of the Ming Dynasty. These contemporaries of Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo and Titian constituted, like them, a pinnacle of the history of art. Never along the history of Chinese painting have harmonized so vividly and freely form, content and theme. Wen Zhengming, who lived to a very old age, exerted the most influence in later Chinese painting. Finally, Dong Qichang (1555-1636) excelled in the paintings of landscapes conceived with realism.
During the Ming dynasty, minor arts presaged the great development that would later experience during the 18th century. This involved great works in the arts of embroidery, ivory and jade carving, soapstone and rock crystal, lacquered work and inlays, small bronze sculpture and Cloisonné enamels.
In terms of ceramic production, porcelain tended to completely replace stoneware. In the imperial factory the most luxurious pieces were elaborated (with yellow or turquoise backgrounds), while the porcelain works of Ching-te-chen*, in Fujian province, produced artifacts in the style called Blanc de Chine* (Dehua* porcelain). These artifacts involved the production of small figurines or vessels (sometimes with fretwork decoration), along with large amounts of pieces with blue or polychrome ornamentation. Beginning in the 17th century, much of all these artifacts were imported to Amsterdam by Dutch merchants.
The corruption of the Ming dynasty provoked a discontent that determined its sudden fall in 1644. Due to lack of space, we won’t detail the series of events that contributed to the establishment of the Manchu dynasty Qing, the last dynasty of the Celestial Empire. Its fourth emperor, Kangxi who reigned 60 years from 1662 to 1722, was an enlightened ruler and it can be said that thanks to him China entered its last stage of prosperity which lasted until the 19th century. His reign was celebrated as the beginning of an era known as the “High Qing”. Kangxi was interested in the arts and sciences. He studied mathematics and natural science with Jesuit missionaries (the Flemish Jesuit missionary father Ferdinand Verbiest, who built the cannons for his army and projected improvements to the Emperor’s astronomical observatory in 1673). The great porcelain center of Ching-te-chen, destroyed since 1644 during the fall of the Ming, was restored by Kangxi and under his reign produced the best porcelains with an abundance of figures and polychrome flowers of impeccable quality.
In painting, before 1700, the previous tradition re-emerged in the South with Pa-ta-Chenjan (also called Shitao) and a former monk named Kuen-tsan (nicknamed Che-tchi) who excelled in a particular style of landscape painting together with Tao-tsi and Kong Hsien. During the 18th century the paintings of Kao-kipei and their colleagues excelled, they were all cultivators of the “Chinese fingernail painting” (so called because they painted using the finger tips), and in Yang-tcheu there was another important group of artists known as “the eccentrics” or “individualists” represented by Hua Yen, Li Chan, King Nong, among others.
Under Yongzheng (reigned 1722-1735), son and successor of Kangxi, and later during the long reign of Qianlong (1735-1796), the environment of the Chinese court was similar to that of the great European courts of the Rococo period. The emperor himself, fond of Fine Arts, maintained around him an academy run by the Milanese Jesuit Father Giuseppe Castiglione (called Lang Shining). The prevalent art during this period was mostly reflected in decorative arts and especially in the beautiful porcelain polychrome ceramics that were then imported to Europe through the French Compagnie des Indes Orientales, or its rival the English company. Vases, jars, garden stools (in the form of barrels), figures and plates, were all classified in several groups according to its predominant tonality: thus their denomination as belonging to the “black family”, “yellow family”, “green family”, “pink family”.
This was the last great era of the Chinese art before the stagnation that characterized the 19th century.
Ching-te-chen: (Also known as Jingdezhen porcelain). A type of Chinese porcelain produced in or near Ching-te-chen in southern China. By the 14th century it became the largest center of production of Chinese porcelain. From the Ming period onwards, official kilns in Ching-te-chen were controlled by the emperor, making imperial porcelain in large quantity for the court and the emperor to give as gifts. Ching-te-chen is close to the best quality deposits of petuntse, or porcelain stone, in China, as well as being surrounded by forests, mostly of pine, providing wood for the kilns. It has produced a great variety of pottery and porcelain, for the Chinese market and as Chinese export porcelain, but its best-known high quality porcelain wares have been successively Qingbai ware in the Song and Yuan dynasties, blue and white porcelain from the 1330s, and the “famille rose” and other “famille” colours under the Qing dynasty.
Dehua porcelain: (Traditionally known in the West as Blanc de Chine, French for “white from China”). A type of white Chinese porcelain, made at Dehua in the Fujian province. It has been produced from the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) to the present day. Large quantities arrived in Europe as Chinese export porcelain in the early 18th century and it was copied at Meissen (Germany) and elsewhere. It was also exported to Japan in large quantities.
Famille groups of porcelain: A classification of the Chinese Dehua porcelain according to their coloration. They are defined by the palette of enamel colors used to produce the porcelain. These are commonly known by their French names of Famille jaune (a variation using famille verte enamels on a yellow ground), noire (black ground), rose (mainly pink or purple glazes), verte (green and iron red) based on the dominant element in each color palette. A large proportion of these were export wares.
Qingbai ware: (meaning “green-white”). A type of Chinese porcelain produced under the Song Dynasty and Yuan dynasty, defined by the ceramic glaze used. Qingbai ware is white with a blue-greenish tint, and is also referred to as Yingqing (“shadow green”, named in the 18th century). It was made in Jiangxi province in south-eastern China in several locations including Ching-te-den (Jingdezhen), and is arguably the first type of porcelain to be produced on a very large scale. Qingbai ware was made with a white porcelain body, fired with a glaze that produced a slight blue-green tint. Qingbai ware was used by commoners, and never seems to have been made for imperial use; its quality only came to be appreciated by collectors several centuries later.