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Zhao Mengfu

    Zhao Mengfu is possibly the most simultaneously admired yet frowned upon figure in Chinese history.

    The sparkle of his brilliant artistic talents shines through the shade cast over his political reputation.

    Without the former, his name would be dismissed in footnotes. Instead, it heads chapters.

    Let’s look at Zhao Mengfu’s life, career, calligraphy and painting.

    Family background and early life

    Zhao Mengfu (赵孟頫 [Zhào Mèngfǔ]) (1254 – 1322 AD), courtesy name Zi’ang (子昂), was born in Wucheng County (today’s Wuxing District of Huzhou, Zhejiang Province) during the last years of the Song dynasty (960 – 1269 AD).

    He was an 11th generation descendent of the founder of the Song dynasty, Emperor Taizu (927 – 976 AD),via Taizu’s fourth son Zhao Defang (959 – 981 AD) (the Prince of Qin).

    His father was Zhao Yuyin (赵与訔 [Zhào Yǔyín]) (1213 – 1265 AD), a government official and envoy known for his skill as a poet. And his mother, surnamed Li, was a concubine (a common practice during the period). 

    Zhao was said to be a bright child with artistic and literary talents. His uncle was the famous painter and official Zhao Mengjian (1199 – 1264 AD). Zhao admired his uncle’s work:

    From my youth on I liked to paint several dozen sheets of narcissus (daffodil) daily, but I was not able to achieve perfection…. Now, when I look at my uncle Zigu’s [Wang Mengjian] paintings of ink flowers, with all their crowding and scattering, each in its right place, I realise this is an extremely difficult feat. I certainly couldn’t surpass this.  

    – Zhao Mengfu

    Zhao’s father passed away aged fifty-three, when Zhao himself was just eleven years old. Afterwards, his mother guided his education for a few years. Then, at fourteen, he joined the army according to his late father’s wishes.

    The Mongols take over China

    When Zhao was twenty-four years old, the Mongol-led Yuan dynasty (1279 – 1368 AD) took over all of China. Like many others, Zhao went back to his home town (Wuxing) and lied low.

    He spent the next few years in a state of semi-seclusion, studying and practicing poetry, calligraphy, and painting. 

    His circle of artistic friends was known as the ‘eight talents of Wuxing’. Many had lost property and incomes and needed teach or sell their art to make a living. 

    A sense of shock and shame at the Chinese situation prevailed. Until recently, the Mongols were an insignificant group of barbarians in many Chinese peoples’ eyes. 

    Now, with abrupt and overpowering violence, they had taken over the greatest civilisation under heaven.

    Kublai Khan’s envoy looks for Southern officials

    In 1268, when Zhao was thirty-two, the Mongol Emperor Khubilai Khan (1215 – 1294 AD) sent an envoy to the south of China to recruit celebrated officials. Zhao’s name was placed first on the list.

    It had long been a custom for the Chinese elite to refuse to serve new dynasties, especially foreign ones like the Mongols. This attitude was particularly prevalent in southern China.

    Most of northern China had been ruled by the Mongols for a few decades already by this point. And before that, it (the north) had been ruled for over a century by the Jurchen Jin Dynasty (1115 – 1234 AD).

    The Elegant Gathering at the Western Garden by Zhao Mengfu
    The Elegant Gathering at the Western Garden (Yuan dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, hanging scroll, ink and colour on paper, 131.5 x 67cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    In other words, the south was a stronghold of loyalty to the Chinese Song dynasty that the Mongols had destroyed.

    There was perhaps added pressure on Zhao not to serve the Mongols because of his ancestry. Many of his associates, including his fellow Wuxing literati Qian Xuan (c. 1235 – c. 1307), refused to do so. 

    However, Zhao and twenty-three others took up the envoy’s offer. They travelled north to the Yuan capital that was still under construction, Dadu – today’s Beijing.

    This was around the same time the Venetian merchant Marco Polo visited the previous Mongol capital – Shangdu, known in English as Xanadu, 300 km north of Beijing.

    [the palace walls are] covered in gold and silver and decorated with pictures of dragons and birds and horsemen and various breeds of beasts and scenes of battle…. the whole building is at once so immense that no man in the world, granted that he had the power to effect it, could imagine any improvement in design or execution. 

    – Timothy Brook, The Great State (London: Profile Books Ltd., 2019), p.31

    Polo’s account would later inspire Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s famous poem:

    In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
    A stately pleasure-dome decree:
    Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
    Through caverns measureless to man
    Down to a sunless sea.
    With walls and towers were girdled round;
    And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills…

    – Extract from ‘Kubla Khan’ (1816) by Samuel Taylor Coleridge

    History’s judgement of Zhao’s career choice

    Zhao’s decision to work for the Mongols was seen as morally wrong by some at the time. Some of his former friends even refused to have any further contact with him.

    By contrast, those that refused to work for the Mongols were classed as yimin (遗民 [yímín]) – ‘remnant/leftover subjects (of the Song dynasty)’. Their position was based on their interpretation of Confucian values related to loyalty and integrity.

    Another artist, Gong Kai (1222 – 1307 AD) is an example of one of these ‘leftover subjects’. Gong would have been more financially secure if he had stayed in his relatively minor government position.

    Instead, he was reduced to poverty as he could only make money from occasionally selling his calligraphy and painting. He is said to have sometimes needed to use his kneeling son’s back as a table.

    A similar situation unfolded when the Ming dynasty (1379 – 1644 AD) was taken over by the Jurchen-ruled Qing dynasty (1644 – 1911 AD). One Ming leftover subject, the calligrapher Fu Shan (1607 – 1684) once bluntly summarised of his thoughts on Zhao Mengfu: ‘Bandit’ (匪人 [fěirén]).

    Centuries after Zhao’s lifetime, rumours persisted had visited his uncle, Zhao Mengjian, to tell him about his appointment to the Mongol court. And that his uncle refused the visit and washed the seat Zhao had waited on afterwards.

    However, Zhao Menjian had passed away many years before appointment.

    Even in the 1980’s, negative judgement was still being passed on Zhao for not declining the Mongol invite. The commonly held belief that calligraphy reflects character was applied to criticism of him.

    Zhao, though a famous calligrapher, as a person had no backbone… The very fluidity of his calligraphy is thought to reflect the instability of his character, and his style is often considered unsuitable for beginning calligraphers to copy.

    – Liu Rong, ‘The Wonderful World of Calligraphy’, China Reconstructs (November 1985)

    Others counter this line of attack by stating that Zhao did a lot to preserve and even advance Chinese culture and the arts at a difficult time. Much, much more than most of his critics could ever dream of doing…

    How did Zhao feel about working for the Mongols?

    Zhao left hints that he was ashamed of having worked for the Mongols (see below for his poem ‘Warning to Self’).

    He also expressed a concept called chaoyin (朝隐 [cháoyǐn]) in his art and poetry (see below, ‘The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu’). 

    This means a prioritisation of inner cultivation over (outer) court life, sense of spiritual detachment from the everyday affairs of government even as you engage directly in them.

    Later career and life

    Zhao rose to a high level as an official and had a long and largely successful career under five successive Emperors. Overall, the period in which he lived was one of political and economic stability. 

    The Yuan dynasty from the moment Khubilai unified the realm experienced peace for sixty or seventy years. Those who lived were properly nourished, and those who died were properly buried.

    Ye Ziqi, The Scribbler. Quoted from The Troubled Empire: China in the Yuan and Ming Dynasties by Timothy Brook (Harvard: Harvard University Press, 2013), p. 77

    Despite being Chinese in a Mongol court, he appears to have been on good terms with and trusted by the all emperors. Khubilai Khan asked him twice to create paintings for him. 

    At one point, in 1292, he fell afoul of internal political struggles and was sent to govern Jinan, Shandong Province. He also worked in Jixian, Jiangsu, Zhongshun and Yangzhou. And held positions as president of the Hanlin Academy and as an official historian for the government.

    Zhao occasionally used his position to influence politics in a way that was good for the Chinese. 

    For example, he helped bring back the imperial examination system (though it was not favourable to southern Chinese subjects). And he argued against corporal punishment for the literati.

    Zhao collected artworks all over China as he travelled for work. This put him in touch with the works of and legacy of Northern Song artwork, which had been cut off from Southern China in the century before Mongol rule united China.

    His second wife, Guan Daosheng (管道昇 [Guǎn Dàoshēng]) (1262 – 1319), was also an excellent painter and calligrapher. Together, they had four children, including Zhao Yong (赵雍 [Zhào Yōng]) (1289 – 1369), their second son, who became a well-known artist.

    Zhao died in 1322, aged 68. About forty-four years later, in 1368, the Chinese rose up and expelled the Mongols. 

    However, some Chinese officials who had worked for the Mongols refused to work for the new Ming dynasty.

    Long in the tooth, aged of sixty-three, 
    Ashamed of many things I have done in life.
    Only with brushes and inkstones, 
    Can I leave a few things behind for people’s amusements.

    – ‘Warning to Self’ by Zhao Mengfu

    Zhao Mengfu’s art

    Artistic theory

    Chinese artistic theory – especially as it pertained to the literati – was greatly advanced by towering Song dynasty intellectual figure Su Shi (1037 – 1101 AD). Members of his artistic circle also contributed to it.

    Zhao did not elaborate a particularly detailed artistic philosophy. This is surprising because he was, after all, the leading figure of Yuan dynasty literati art.

    One point he did come back to a lot was how important it was for artists to possess guyi – ‘a sense of antiquity’.

    A sense of antiquity is essential in painting. If it isn’t there, then skilful works are without value. Modern painters only know how to use the brush for detail and abundantly apply colours – they then think they are competent artists. If a sense of antiquity is lacking, many types of faults will appear in a work, and why should anyone bother looking at it? What I paint seems to be summary and rough, but connoisseurs realise that it is close to the ancients, and so they consider it beautiful. 

    – Zhao Mengfu

    In practical terms, this was achieved by studying and diligently practicing the old forms of painting and calligraphy.


    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script by Zhao Mengfu
    Two Odes on the Red Cliff in Running Script (1301) by Zhao Mengfu, running script, ink on paper, 27.2 x 11.1cm. National Palace Museum, Taipei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    In learning calligraphy, brush method should be given priority, though efforts must also be made on studying characters’ structures. After all, character structure changes over time, whilst brush method doesn’t change over time. 

    Zhao Mengfu, from ‘On Calligraphy’

    Many of Zhao’s contemporaries recognised his status as a great calligrapher. And today, he is generally considered to be the greatest calligrapher of the Yuan dynasty. 

    Others have gone further and ranked him as the greatest calligrapher since the Song dynasty (690 – 1279 AD) or even earlier than that.

    He is particularly famous for his standard (or regular) script form and the small-standard variation of it.

    Tale of the Luo River Goddess by Zhao Mengfu
    Detail from Tale of the Luo River Goddess (Yuan Dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, ink on paper, running script, 29.5 x 192. 6cm. Original copy’s location uncertain. (Image source: Wikipedia Commons)

    As its name suggests, standard script is the straightforward way of writing characters. This means its characters are written out with minimum variation or deviation from their set stroke order.

    He is also famous for his running script, which is the semi-cursive form of standard script. In other words, standard script in ‘quite fast’ handwriting.

    And some critics say his finest work is the variation of that – running-cursive script. This is running script, which is semi-cursive, with elements of the fully cursive script (i.e., the extremely fast handwritten version of regular script).

    Zhao was also a keen practitioner of older Chinese scripts. These include, clerical script – the script used during the first unified empire of China (the Qin, 221 – 246 BC). And the even more ancient script that clerical was directly developed fromseal script.

    The Yuan dynasty critic Xian Yushu (1257 – 1302 AD) wrote:

    Zi’ang’s [Zhao Mengfu] seal, clerical, standard, running, and wild-cursive scripts are this era’s best, and his small-standard script is the best of all of his styles.

    – Xian Yushu

    Zhao’s calligraphy in all scripts is often described and gentle, refined, and well-proportioned. Many have pointed out its grounding in the great calligraphy of the past. 

    The Qing dynasty Scholar Bao Shichen (1775—1855) wrote that when glancing at Zhao’s calligraphy, one simply sees Zhao’s calligraphy. But when one looks carefully, one can see the hands of Wang Xizhi (303 – 361 AD) and his son Wang Xianzhi (344 – 386), Li Yong (674 – 746 AD), and Chu Suiliang (596 – 658 AD).


    It is difficult to paint, but it is even more difficult to understand painting. I like painting horses, because I have talent and can depict them with skill. In this painting, I feel I can match the Tang masters. There must be people in the world with the great vision [to recognise this]

    – Zhao Mengfu

    Zhao specialised in both landscapes and figure painting. In both, he emphasised the study of older models. And like many Chinese literati artists, he aimed at expressing inner sentiments above accurate and technical representation.

    The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu (?1286 AD)

    Detail from The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu by Zhao Mengfu
    Detail from The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu (Yuan dynasty) by Zhao Mengfu, handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 27.4 x 116.3 cm

    The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu (幼舆丘壑) is Zhao’s earliest known painting. It depicts the Eastern Jin dynasty official Xie Youyu (280 – 322 AD), who was said to embody the chaoyin ideal of mental and spiritual detachment from contact with worldly affairs. 

    The painter Gu Kaizhi (344 – 406) had also painted on the same theme. Both Gu and Zhao knew of Xie’s alleged reply to be asked to compare himself to another official. Xie said that he himself simply excelled in ‘a single hill, a single stream’. 

    This meant simply that he imagined himself living a recluse’s lifestyle. In Zhao’s painting, and descriptions of Gu’s paintings, which didn’t survive, the the image of a recluse living amongst the hills is clear.

    The Mind Landscape of Xie Youyu (?1286 AD) by Zhao Mengfu, section on a handscroll, ink and colour on silk, 27.4 x 116.3cm. Art Museum, Princeton University.

    Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296)

    Detail from Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains by Zhao Mengfu
    Detail from Autumn Colours on the Qiao and Hua Mountains (1296) by Zhao Mengfu, section of a handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 28.4 x 93.2 cm. National Palace Museum, Tapei. (Image source: National Palace Museum Open Data)

    Mounted Official (1296)

    Mounted Official
    Mounted Official (1296) by Zhao Mengfu, handscroll, ink and colour on paper, 30 x 52 cm. Palace Museum, Beijing. (Image source: Alamy)

    Zhao often drew horses. Mounted Official (人骑图) contains an inscription that reads:

    From my youth, I loved painting horses. I have recently seen scrolls by Han Gan. I’m beginning to understand some of his ideas.

    – Zhao Mengfu

    Han Gan was a Tang dynasty master. This could be Zhao’s justification for his horse’s lack of accurate proportion. It also shows that the painting fit into Zhao’s scheme of learning from past masters.