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Mongol rule in the Yuan dynasty meant that China was no longer under the exclusive domain of native Chinese culture, providing the opportunity for the promotion of alternative tastes. In art, not only were new techniques imported from other ethnic groups and areas (such as color washes in portraits to suggest volume from Nepal and Tibet), distinctive features also were emphasized under the Mongols. Among them was a fascination with the notion of "complexity" and detail, as observed in ruled-line paintings of architectural themes.

The following explains the distinctive manifestation of "complexity" among Yuan dynasty painters, based on the National Palace Museum's "A Han Dynasty Palace" made by the ruled-line painter Li Rongjin.


The term "complexity" here is meant to not only suggest intricacy and detail but, in the Yuan painting, a sense of repetition and structure. The apparently complex arrangement in "A Han Dynasty Palace" and the decoration that appears throughout actually make repeated use of the same structures and patterns. When combined in various ways, they produce a sense of "complexity" while avoiding dull repetition.


"A Han Dynasty Palace" and Ruled-line Painting

The partial signature of the artist Li Rongjin still appears in the lower right corner of "A Han Dynasty Palace," which is his only surviving painting. This work portrays a grand palatial complex set on hill overlooking a river scene. Palaces have been the subject of Chinese paintings throughout the ages. Early on, they were referred to generically as "buildings of wood" and "palace buildings." Since works that describe palatial complexes, observation terraces, and roofed buildings were often done using straight lines rendered with the aid of a ruler, they were also referred to as "ruled-line paintings."


When doing a ruled-line painting, the brush is held within the concave half of a split tube or fastened to another bamboo brush. When moving the brush, the bamboo (or split tube) follows the edge of a ruler. The brush tip follows the tracing of the fixed tube or brush, yielding a perfectly straight line (without the fluctuations of pressure when using the soft-tipped brush alone).

Ruled-line painting flourished in the Yuan dynasty, and several artists who specialized in the medium emerged, producing many exquisite works. Such artists included Wang Zhenpeng, Li Rongjin, and Xia Yong. "A Han Dynasty Palace" is a fine example of ruled-line painting representing the Yuan dynasty. The lines of the roof tiles are very even in thickness, the curve and length of the lines are quite consistent, and the distance between the lines is uniform. Thus, the architectural elements appear quite exacting and accurate, as if a palace complex could actually be built based on this painting.


 The lines of the roof tiles are very even in thickness, the curve and length of the lines are quite consistent, and the distance between the lines is uniform.

Different Ways of Rendering Palaces

Depicting a palace, however, need not focus solely on elements of the ruled-line technique. For example, some paintings emphasize the activities taking place in the palace hall while others deal more with the opulence of the architecture itself.

For instance, the painting "Banquet by Lantern Light" by the Southern Song court master Ma Yuan. This work describes banquet activities taking place in a palatial setting at night. The background was washed with ink to give it a hazy evening atmosphere. Only a few mountains were vaguely outlined in the distance, making it really look as if viewed in the atmosphere of the dim light of dusk. In the early evening haze depicted here, officials wait in attendance at the banquet. Outside the palace hall, rows of court maidens have lined up and appear as if in the midst of a dance, creating a setting of elegance and tranquility typical of the Southern Song dynasty.

"A Han Dynasty Palace," however, does not focus on the atmosphere or tranquility. Rather, the painting expresses the expansive landscape and the detailed architectural construction. In addition, contrary to the "Banquet by Lantern Light," which gives more attention to the activities of the figures, Li Rongjin chose to focus much of his effort on the grandeur and detail of the palatial complex.


 Outside the palace hall, creating a setting of elegance and tranquility typical of the Southern Song dynasty.

Complexity in Spatial Structure

The number of buildings depicted in "A Han Dynasty Palace" is obviously far greater than that shown in "Banquet by Lantern Light." The palace buildings of the former sprawl across the right half of the painting in several stages. Even when viewed from a distance, the palace buildings in "A Han Dynasty Palace" clearly appear far grander than those in "Banquet by Lantern Light."

However, in "A Han Dynasty Palace", grandeur does not manifest itself in size or area of the buildings only. Looking closely at the spatial relationships between the palace buildings, we find that they are also filled with complexity and detail. In fact, the architectural complex here can be divided into four major parts (as shown in the illustration). These parts are interconnected using steps, level areas, and slopes.


In this paininting, the first and second parts are connected via two sets of stairs and a level-dividing area (as shown in the illustration by the stair area marked with the number 1). Two attendant figures have just come up from an undisclosed place below. Engaged in conversation, they are about to cross the level area and ascend the flight of steps in front connecting to the second part, perhaps to meet their colleagues in the palace hall. Stairs also connect the second and third parts to form a unit composed of "two stairs with a level area." Though not a tall multi-story complex, the grand palatial architecture here is still composed of ascending levels proceeding up the slope and into the distance.

In addition to these four major areas of spatial relationships, Li Rongjin also focused on the design and variety of each building. The complex construction of the palace halls actually is based on several smaller units. In the first part, for example, the main building can be divided into four smaller architectural units:


The first unit is composed of the main entryway into the painting. Though only an entry, it connects to the hallways and allows the viewer to proceed in several directions.


The second unit is composed of a large waterside pavilion Protruding at the left are trees by the water, which are connected to a zigzag hallway to the aforementioned entryway. The long hallway also extends other parts of the complex and the deck of the pavilion.


The third unit is composed of the pavilion in the middle of the courtyard. This pavilion appears to stand out from the palace to the rear. Between them is a diagonally extending hallway, pushing the pavilion into the middle of the courtyard. 


The fourth unit is composed of the main building behind the pavilion.

This building is composed of a stacked relationship roughly divided into five parts, designated here as A through E. Parts A and B are both two-story buildings, but the top of A has an additional level of eaves and rafters that make it taller than the other.


This two-story palace hall is thus unlike parts B and C, which merely overlap spatially, and is a concrete expression of spatial and structural relationship in which a diagonal line is used. This method is used in part D as well.


The entire painting makes use of "receding overlapped" constructs with "diagonals" to create connection and recession in space, thereby giving believable form to this grand palace complex.

Complexity in Architectural Elements

In terms of architectural units, "A Han Dynasty Palace" also reveals the artist's delight in "complexity." Comparing "A Han Dynasty Palace" and "Banquet by Lantern Light", we find differences in the way that the architectural elements were treated.


Examples include the protruding roof ridges. In "Banquet by Lantern Light," they are proportionately much shorter. Although the roof ridges are composed of several diagonal parallel lines, they are simpler and more decorative compared to those in "A Han Dynasty Palace" The numerous rooftops and connecting ridges in "A Han Dynasty Palace" are of different heights to provide variety and suggest space.


In the protruding parts of the ridges, the background was filled with ink to highlight the decorative patterns.


Moreover, the corners of the roof ridges are decorated with five or six figurines of various sizes according to the level.


While the columns in "Banquet by Lantern Light" are decorated only at the very bottom with a circle, the bottom of those in "A Han Dynasty Palace" are also recessed. Both in terms of form and structure, much more variety is found here than in "Banquet by Lantern Light".

Architectural Decoration Everywhere

In addition to the complexity of space and architectural elements, we also sense that the painter Li Rongjin had a strong interest in the complexity of decoration as well. Besides the few scattered walls and columns left undecorated, surfaces are filled with all sorts of patterns.

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Palace surfaces, whether indoors or outdoors, are all rendered with grid-shaped brick patterns. The buildings themselves are adorned with walls of complex decoration, such as a honeycomb-pattern divided into a inner and outer levels as well as rhomboid bricks with Buddhist symbols in white against a black background of ink. Of particular interest, however, is the bracketing system that supports the roof. Close examination shows that it was rendered in a very flat manner, failing to convey the volume of the structure. This shows that Li Rongjin perhaps was actually more interested in decorative display than structural detail.

The complex buildings in "A Han Dynasty Palace" actually can be broken down into a series of repeated units and the order in which they were put together can be identified. For example, the massive building complex uses winding corridors to establish relationships between building units at a particular level. The artist also used a set of "two stairs with a level area" to establish connection between two building complexes at different levels.

Although the exterior of the palace halls differs, each is actually composed of almost identical architectural units.

Furthermore, the floor and wall decoration, though bearing different patterns, are repeated time and again in various parts of the palatial complex. In summary, "A Han Dynasty Palace" assembles similar architectural units and patterns into different arrangements, creating a painting surface that appears complex.

Expressions of Complexity in Other Yuan Paintings

Complex works were done in the hanging scroll format (such as Li Rongjin's "A Han Dynasty Palace"), the handscroll format (Wang Zhenpeng's "A Dragon Boat Regatta" and the anonymous "Jianzhang Palace"), and the album leaf format ("Tengwang Pavilion"). These Yuan paintings of palaces done in the ruled-line technique express a unique fascination with complexity in space, motifs, and decorations. Many such ruled-line paintings survive, and their numbers testify to this interest at the time. In fact, complexity appears not only in representations of palace architecture but also in clothing and interior decorations of figure paintings.

 A Dragon Boat Regatta

Expressions of Complexity in Other Yuan Art Forms

The notion of complexity is not limited to paintings, either. It is also found in other media during the Mongol Yuan period, such as blue-and-white ceramics. AYuan dynasty vase with greenish-blue glaze in the National Palace Museum is covered with intricate designs of black floral patterns.

In the Yuan dynasty, all kinds of craftsmen in architecture, textiles, and art objects were summoned or moved from across the empire. They must have had a profound impact on the expression of complexity in space, forms, and decorations. These works are a concrete symbol of the cultural pluralism under the Mongols, who helped foster new trends in art.

 AYuan dynasty vase

 A Dragon Boat Regatta