Stories of Anige and how it shows the effects of cross-continental Mongol rule on Art

–Created by Chris Bao

The concept of Pax Mongolica will not be completed unless we mention the aspect of art. In the course of transcontinental communications, artisans are better able to influence each other by appreciating the works of others and collaborating on specific projects. Artisans impact each other, and techniques, patterns or emphasizes from different style genres or culture groups are exchanged and learned. I will be focusing on stories of Anige, a Nepali artist, in Yuan court and how his artworks reflected the combination of artistic style and how is it related to the continental rule of the Mongols.


Art can always be a reflection of real lives. In the same way, the development of arts is closely related to politics, religion, environment, and many other possible aspects of human societies that they interact with each other. So it is a reasonable guess that by looking into the aspect of art history, we can find more details in a specific period.


Anige, as a representative figure of trans-cultural connections of art, is a Nepali artist who is wildly known as the painter of the most used portray of Khubilai Khan (fig1.) and his wife Chabi (fig2.). By looking into his life experiences and works, we can probably have a better understanding of the Mongol rules and how it affects art development.


Anige was born as a scion of the Nepali royal family in 1245. As is often told in stories about professional artists, he was an artistic prodigy even in his early childhood. An anecdote has it that one day in 1247, Anige’s parents brought him to pay homage in a Buddhist temple. Looking at a stupa(舍利塔), the two-year-old boy inquired about the maker of its wooden Stambha, Bhumis, and Anda.1 Greatly surprised, the people around realized that he was a born artist. When Anige was around seven, his temperament was already sober like that of a grown-up. He mastered his textbooks at school and became a good calligrapher in such a short time that even the venerable elders acknowledged their inferiority. He could memorize treatises on art as soon as he heard them read. Before leaving Nepal for Tibet, he was already an expert in painting, modeling, and casting images.


He was brought to the yuan court because of Khubilai khan’s need to build a stupa at first and got his promotion because of his outstanding ability and latter became the Supervisorate-in-chief of All Classes of Artisans.2 He started to work on his famous paintings of the great khan in the first month of I294 when Khubilai died. Extremely costly and difficult to make, the portraits of Khubilai took more than three years to complete in I297 and Chabi’s in 1230.


Artistically, the portraits show both a continuation of the Chinese imperial portrait tradition3 and new technical and stylistic features:


For the traditional Chinese part, the basic shapes in the two portraits are defined by ink outlines and substantiated by the application of colors. The contours of the figures are done in lines of roughly the same thickness. By contrast, the lines representing the garment folds generated from the armpits are done by lessening the pressure on the brush’s tip to create tapering lines towards the end of the folds.4 Such tapering lines are no doubt derived from earlier imperial portraits, such as the portraits of Emperor Wu of the Liang dynasty (fig. 3) and Taizu of the Northern Song dynasty (fig. 4).5


For technical influence, the most striking feature is the Himalayan method of describing highlights on the jewels in the portrait of Chabi. The highlights on the two large red stones of the pendants hanging below the empress’ ears are painted with three brush strokes in whitish-pink forming an irregular ring; those on the red and green gems suspended before the empress’ bosom are described by brush strokes in lighter colors of red and green respectively. The principle of describing highlights by higher values of the same hue as is used in the non-highlighted area has been a living tradition in Buddhist art of the Himalayas6. The presence of the Himalayan principle of duotone highlights on the jewels in the portrait of Chabi demonstrates that it was painted by an artist trained in the Himalayan art tradition. In contrast with the tightly-controlled brushwork elsewhere in the portrait, the brush strokes for the highlights are free and spontaneous. This might indicate the hand of the Buddhist artist whose artistic spontaneity shines through the tightly controlled design only in non-figurative, non-iconographical elements.6


Considering his style as a Buddhist painter, Anige made no moral judgment in his portraits. (There is no indication of action or attributes that might convey added meaning. His preoccupation was with technical perfection, but the rather detached personal attitude toward his subjects resulted from his aesthetic psychology with a background of Buddhist art tradition.) For a pious Buddhist artist, the formal refinement and correctness of an icon are of the first importance in offering an image since they could result in greater religious merit. It would be inconceivable that a Chinese painter could abandon the aim of capturing the character or spirit of his subject and, instead, adopt a detached attitude and concentrate on formal perfection and regularity to such an extent as to balance each hair in the emperor’s beard and mustache, which is the reason for the uniqueness of Anige’s portrays.7 The combination of these artistic factors contributed to Anige’s final work. It is a representative work facilitated by the cross-continental Mongol rule, which forced the cohesion of art style. The combination and conflicts of traditional Chinese technique, Himalayan art tradition, and a sense of Buddhism can only be brought together for the first time in history by cross-continental Mongol rule.


The great khan’s policies contributed a lot to the possibility of an artist learning from each other. Khubilai’s policy towards artists in the region he conquered is quite open: officials collect them, and later the empire set up special departments that gather these workers, and they are able to learn from each other, thus raising their social status.8 Through the institutional reorganization, the social status of conquered artisans under the government’s control was improved.9 They were no longer war captives or personal property but became official artisans. And this further promotes the development of art.


Moreover, the reason for the Mongol’s policies is worth discussing. To be sure, the Mongols themselves were generally not the artists or artisans. They were not the potters who produced the Chinese blue-and-white porcelains; they were not the calligraphers whose writings adorned the Iranian illustrated manuscripts; they were not the weavers who fashioned the Central Asian textiles, and they were not the metalworkers who created both the decorative and functional gold objects produced in the Russian domains. Before their conquests, their nomadic lifestyle did not lend itself to the development of an artisan class, nor did frequent migrations provide opportunities to carry some of the heavy equipment required by craftsmen. These artifacts cannot, therefore, be classified as Mongol art. They are rightly considered to be examples of Chinese, Central Asian, Russian, or Iranian art.10 It may be their original lacking of sense of art that urged them to better promote and protect it.


As the Supervisorate-in-chief, Anige learnt from various sources and was a perfect representative of a successful artist who is an expert in various fields. He studied the Chinese language, writing, and calligraphy. His calligraphy became so renowned that he was even recorded as a good calligrapher in Shushi huiyao, a late Yuan history of Chinese calligraphy. His learning experiences are further pushed by the needs of the emperors. For example, the patterns of religious art at the court were to a large extent shaped by the Yuan rulers’ religious practices. As Temur adopted a more generous policy toward Daoism than his predecessor Khubilai, Anige was assigned to more tasks in Daoist projects, which urged him to learn more about Daoism.11 Anige’s ability of learning and accepting new concepts is crucial in creating his great works. Anige also facilitated the development of these institutions in return, that he was weaving religious images and imperial portraits in textiles such as tapestry and brocade. The sub-agency responsible for this was later known in 1317 as the Supervisorate for Weaving Buddhist Images (Zhi foxiang tiju si), but it must have existed in one form or another before 1294 when Anige transferred his painted portrait of Khubilai into textile. Without such a unit to provide experience, technique, facility, and skilled craftsmen it would have been impossible for him to embark on the project.12


In conclusion, Anige’s work is made possible by the Mongol rule, which connected the whole ruling region across continents. The Mongols promoted the interactions of art by gathering artists from different regions into official organizations and assigning works to them. The rule of the Mongols indeed facilitated the development of arts.

Fig1. Anige, Portrait of Khubilai. I294, Yuan dynasty. Album leaf, colors and ink on silk. 59.4×47 cm. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taibei.

Fig2. Anige, Portrait of Chabi. 1294, Yuan Dynasty. Album leaf, colors and ink on silk. 61.5×48 cm. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taibei

Fig3. Portrait of Emperor Wu of the Liang Dynasty. Colors and ink on silk. 78.8 x 56.4 cm. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taibei.

Fig4. Portrait of Song Taizu. Song dynasty. Hanging scroll: colors and ink on silk. 191 x I69.7 cm. Courtesy of the National Palace Museum, Taibei


1. ChengJufu, “Liangguo Minhui,” 315.

2. Jing, Anning. 1994: From the religious perspective, the construction of the stupa may be seen as one of the offerings made by Khubilai as a believer to the lord of the Saskya sect. Also, the timing of the construction – 1260 – is worth noticing. That was a year in which Khubilai made a series of bold moves. In violation of the Mongol custom of electing a Great Khan by convocation of the Mongol tribes, he proclaimed himself the Great Khan in 1260. The event ignited a war between Khubilai and his younger brother Arigh Boke, who also competed for the position. Khubilai was expecting the Sa skya sect to provide religious sanction that can be helpful to his rule in return for his officially acknowledging ‘Phags pa as his highest religious authority.

3. Fong, Wen C. 1995: Reason for the painter to follow the basic format of traditional Chinese imperial portraits is that they were highly valued by the Mongols. The portrait of Emperor Wu notably bears a collection seal of Princess Sengge on its upper left corner reading “the beloved treasure of the sister of the emperor.” The collection of the earlier imperial portraits was not only a matter of appreciation but more importantly a claim for legitimate lineage of the dynasty. The Yuan emperors, though Mongols, always regarded themselves as the legitimate successors of earlier rulers of China.

4. Jing, Anning. 1994

5. In pre-Yuan imperial portraits, to capture the spirit or character was of the utmost importance, and they vary greatly in length, configuration, and direction. Anning Jing, pp.


7. VINOGRAD, RICHARD. 2009: There is a greater sense of symmetry in the Yuan portraits. Although the emperor’s left ear is not shown and the pearl decoration around the empress’ right ear is presented only in profile, thus negating the symmetry in each portrait, as a whole, the reduced elements actually create the illusion that the two figures turn slightly toward each other, thereby achieving a more delicate balance between the two portraits as a pair. Further, in the portrait of Khubilai every curve in his beard on one side corresponds on the other to a similar curve. Such a commitment to symmetry is undiscernible in earlier portraits.

8. Rossabi, Morris 2015: Most of the artisans had been captured during the Mongol expansion. In their wars of conquest the Mongols learned the usefulness of artisans, especially those who specialized in armor and weaponry. As a result, they adopted a comparatively lenient policy towards them. When cities were captured and people slaughtered wholesale, artisans, and those who claimed to be artisans, were often spared.

9. Jing, Anning. 1994: Anige became the Supervisorate-in-chief of Goldsmiths and Jade Workers in All Circuits (Zhulu jinyu renjiang zongguan fu), the Supervisorate-in-chief of Rare Textiles (Yiyang ju zongguan fu), and the Supervisorate-in-chief of Civilian Artisans of Dadu and Other Routes (Dadu deng lu minjiang zongguan fu), it probably commanded over ten thousand artisan-households. The three subordinate agencies were among the oldest artisan services of the Yuan government. in 1278. Yuanshi, juan 88.

10. Morris Rossabi 2015

11. Anning Jing, 1994: Temur ordered Zhang Liusun (1248-1321), one of the disciples of the thirty-sixth Celestial Master Zhang Zongyan (d. 1292), to deliver Daoist lectures to him.Sun Kekuan (Sun K’o-k’uan), “YUi Chi and Southern Taoism during the Yian period,” John D. Langlois ed., China under Mongol Rule (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981), 223

12. Jing, Anning. 1994


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3. Rossabi, Morris. “The Mongol Empire and Its Impact on the Arts of China.” Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change: The Mongols and Their Eurasian Predecessors, edited by Reuven Amitai and Michal Biran, University of Hawai’i Press, 2015, pp. 214–227. JSTOR,

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7. Liao, Jing, and 廖靜 . “A Selected Annotated Bibliography of Yuan Painting.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, no. 29, 1999, pp. 157–193. JSTOR,

8. Yuanshi

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11. Chen, Yuan. “Legitimation Discourse and the Theory of the Five Elements in Imperial China.” Journal of Song-Yuan Studies, vol. 44, 2014, pp. 325–364. JSTOR,

12. Google Images