The period of the Yuan Dynasty in China saw an explosion in landscape painting. The reign of Kublai Khan (1260-1294) caused a large amount of the scholar class to leave the imperial court, meaning “amateur” artists began to show the skills of artists of the court. At this point four artists became known as the “Four Great Masters of the Yuan Dynasty” or “Four Great Masters of Landscape Painting”. These men were Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan and Wang Meng. Although all four were significant in Chinese painting, this paper will focus on the lives and works of Gongwang, Zan and Meng.
In order to understand the way that these men painted, it is important to know about the Yuan Dynasty itself. At the start of the Yuan Dynasty in 1279, China was under Mongol control. Although it was Genghis Khan who moved his men into China, it was his grandson, Kublai Khan who began the dynasty. The government was run by Mongols, but there was a strong attempt to rule in a Chinese fashion. This led to a less severe rule than China was used to, but it also caused the best scholars to found their own institutes of learning and disband from the royal court (Yuan).
Along with the lax government came problems, which eventually brought an end to the Yuan Dynasty in 1368. Excessive spending, especially on new canals and palaces, led to heavy taxing on Chinese citizens. In less than one hundred years, the Mongols caused China to become a highly impoverished nation. Before the fall of the Yuan Dynasty, the Mongols also lost much of their military training ability, which meant that when uprisings due to mass taxation began, it was difficult for the ruling class to fight back. Overall, the Mongols were fine with being removed from China, as it was no longer the wealthy nation it had been in 1279 (Yuan). All of the governmental issues during the Yuan period allowed artists of all types to have uncensored freedom. While poetry did not change much at this time, painting developed in a whole new way. The “Four Great Masters of the Yuan Dynasty” led China into a painting revolution. The oldest of the “Four Great Masters” was Huang Gongwang (also spelled Kung-wang). Born in 1269, Gongwang was adopted around the age of eight by a Mr. Haung, who educated him which led to a career in civil service (Cahill Hills, p. 85-86). After a brief stint in prison, and a period of Taoist devotion, Gongwang began to focus more on his painting. Throughout his life, Gongwang enjoyed drawing as a hobby, but it took until the year 1347 before he decided to not just paint, but teach followers about his skillful strokes (Cahill Three, p. 167). It was at this time he wrote an essay entitled “Secrets of Landscape Painting” which was published shortly after his death in 1354.
Gongwang’s most famous work, Dwelling in the Fu-ch’un Mountains (Figure 1) measures 639.9 centimeters in length, or just less than 21 feet. This was sketched in one sitting, according to the inscription by Gongwang. The piece was then altered as he traveled through the mountains (Cahill Three, p. 168). Strangely, this scroll was ink on paper, rather than the popular ink on silk. Another of his scrolls, entitled The Stone Cliff at the
Pond of Heaven (Figure 2), is sizably smaller, but done in both black and light colored inks on silk.
The skill found in Gongwang’s work is often beautifully balanced. For example, in both scrolls there is softness seen in the mountains, while the trees are rigidly patterned and placed in linear clusters. There is also the use of colored ink, specifically a yellow one called umber, which Gongwang probably uses to show sunlight in Figure 2. His earlier works appear to absorb most of the space, while his final pieces, such as Dwelling in the Fu-ch’un Mountains, have vastly open skies and little calligraphic writing within the actual art of the piece (calligraphy is found at the very start of the scroll,...