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 …