So wondrous was the court of Khubilai Khan that its memory floated through the centuries until an English poet captured it in dreamy rhymes: “In Xanadu did Kubla Khan/A stately pleasure-dome decree,” wrote Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 1797.
A portrait of the pie-faced Mongol lord (the grandson of Genghis Khan), who established the Yuan dynasty in 1271 and became emperor of China, is among the more than 200 works evoking “The World of Khubilai Khan,” now at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
Who knew the Mongols were such aesthetes? After a successful pillage, artists were usually spared and sent east. In the new cities of Xanadu (or Shangdu) and Dadu (Beijing), the well-ordered streets filled up with mansions, theaters, tombs, looms and studios.
The range is thrilling: huge dragon roof ornaments, bustling town scenes on hand-scrolls, statues, robes, and some unforgettable animal portraits. Don’t miss the smiling little pup from the Capital Museum in Beijing, one of the show’s many lenders.
I spoke with the mastermind behind the exhibit, James C.Y. Watt, who heads up the Department of Asian Art at the Metropolitan.
Hoelterhoff: Within a short period, Khubilai Khan built himself a new capital called Dadu and Shangdu farther north. That’s pretty impressive.
Watt: When you are the head of the biggest empire and have collected thousands of the craftsmen from demolished cities, that is not so amazing. The Mongols spared the artists but slaughtered everyone else. Well, women and children were taken back as slaves.
Hoelterhoff: Marco Polo appears in the show. I thought he made everything up.
Watt: He certainly was in China, in Dadu. And he did meet Khubilai. But he knew no Chinese and moved amongst the Mongols and the Westerners, so he had no contact with the real China. And not everything he wrote is necessarily true.
Hoelterhoff: The metal passports in the show are intriguing. So the bearers could travel from Dadu to the western extreme of the empire?
Watt: All the way into Central Asia at least, as fast as the horses could gallop. You could go nonstop because stations were spaced close together, sometimes 20 or 30 miles apart.
Hoelterhoff: I like the vitality that comes through the show. Looking at that enormous model of a theater, you can easily envision actresses and their cheering fans.
Watt: This was the peak of Chinese theater in terms of the writing, acting, singing and dancing. Some of their traditions survive now.
Voltaire wrote a play based on one of the dramas, but the most famous, of course, is Brecht’s “The Caucasian Chalk Circle.” It’s the same story -- two mothers vying for a child.
Hoelterhoff: Did the government subsidize the theater?
Watt: It was totally commercial, entirely self-supporting and popular. The troupes would move around too, not just playing in one city.
Hoelterhoff: What do we know about Khubilai Khan’s private life?
Watt: All the Mongols had a chief wife who was powerful. They sat with the emperor in audiences. We have a portrait of Khubilai’s chief wife, Chabi.
Hoelterhoff: Who is a vision in red. What is she wearing on her head?
Watt: It’s the Mongol hat called the gugu, made of birch bark as the core and then wrapped with silk and sewn with pearls and stones.
Cloths of Gold
Hoelterhoff: The fabled cloths of gold were often remarked on by visitors. Were they typically Mongolian?
Watt: No, they were originally manufactured in the rich cities destroyed by the Mongols. But anything shimmering, the Mongols desired. They would use gold cups, jewels to dress themselves and their tents -- these were lined with cloth of gold.
Some survived, made into chasubles. They reveal incredible craftsmanship: The gold threads are made by wrapping the thinnest imaginable gold foil on this little thread.
Hoelterhoff: The Yuan dynasty is so short, falling in 1368, when the Chinese return. What doomed Mongol rule?
Watt: Basically corruption, and there were too many factions at court.
Then, in the middle of the 14th Century, a whole series of calamities happened as floods covered several provinces, totally disrupting the communication between the capital and the grain-producing areas in the south.
They had to transport grain and necessities by sea up the coast, where they were attacked by pirates.
Hoelterhoff: An alluring photograph in the catalogue of the Rainbow Bridge in Dadu suggests the city was very beautiful. Why does so little survive?
Watt: It’s now Beijing. The next dynasty was built exactly on the same site.
“The World of Khubilai Khan: Chinese Art in the Yuan Dynasty” is at the Metropolitan Museum of Art through Jan. 2, 2011. The sponsor is Bank of America.
(Manuela Hoelterhoff is executive editor of Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)