Mongol Group c1

How did the Mongols influence the transcontinental connection?

Transcontinental Art Exchange through Textiles

Textiles, products from woven fabric such as cloths and other ornaments, were salient commodities of the transcontinental trade during the Mongol Empire (1206-1368). While generating plenty of profits for Mongol rulers and merchants, it also provides us a lens to examine the exchange in technologies, motifs and styles related to art under the Mongols’ reign through the weaving techniques of and patterns on these textiles. What exhibited by these artworks may help us to refine our understanding toward the transcontinental connection during that period.


Mongols and the exchange of art


Although art flourished during the Mongols’ governance, Mongols did not make contributions through directly creating art. As nomads, art was not inhered in Mongols’ culture. All the great artwork produced under their governance—porcelains, paintings, calligraphies, metalworks, and textiles—are made by artisans from different cultures rather than the Mongols per se, and thereby cannot be classified as “Mongols’ art.”[1] But how the Mongols took part in the production of these artworks? David Morgan argued that the prosperity of art in the Yuan dynasty should be attributed to Mongol officials “maintain[ing] a considerable distance between themselves and their Chinese subjects.” And the “absence of governmental interference” encouraged the raise of different forms and styles of art. Relative cultural freedom and the absence of significant war established an environment that is preferable for people to create art. However, was Mongols’ role in this art-flourishing period merely providing freedom and peace? Textiles and other artworks excavated may shed light on this question.

Fig.1 The portrait of Chabi. National Palace Museum, Taipei.

[1] Rossabi, 215

[2] Morgan, Kindle Location 1360


Fig.2 Details of Yamantaka Mandala with Imperial Portraits. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

[3] Faqucar, 200-214

[4] Yongledadian Chapter 1978

[5] Rossabi, 222

[6] Rossabi, 221


Mongols focused on the textile production and had a huge demand of them. More than one-half of agencies in the Ministry of Work in Yuan China was distributed to supervising the textile production[3]. One category of textiles produced is nasij, golden clothes that emperors or elites wore to signify their prestige. In the portrait of Chabi(fig.1), Kubilai’s wife, she was wearing a nasij collar with golden patterns of “griffinlike-birds” on it. These patterns, which recurred on central Asia’s designs, indicated the artistical influence across the continent. According to Yongledadian, Kubilai transferred weavers from the Besh Baliq, modern Turfan, to Dadu to help weaving these nasij[4]. Other uses of textiles including serving as tributes or gifts to reinforce their relations with other territories or simply acting as commodities to generate income. To make these commodities more popular in western Asia, the Mongols introduced western motifs and designs to artists in China and asked them to mingle these into their works[5]. Finally, the Mongol emperors’ interest in Tibet Buddhism motivated them to commission artists to create related artwork[6]. The Textile, Yamantaka Mandala with Imperial Portraits(Fig.2), as a work describing the Tibet Buddhism, portrayed the violent side of bodhisattva Manjushri in the central, and depicted the two patrons, Wenzong Emperor(the great-great grandson of Kubilai Khan) and his elder brother Tugh Temur, on the lower left corner. Themes like Tibet Buddhism would had not appeared on Chinese artwork if Mongols had not imposed their personal interest. Other than providing peace and freedom, Mongols probably influenced the creation of textiles by guaranteeing its abundance and combing exotic design and themes, from western Asia and Tibet, into Chinese textile produced.



Marco Polo mentioned in his book The Description of the World, that artisans from “China, Central Asia, and Islamic territories” were gathered at Shangdu to produce the cloths of gold[7]. This reflected the artistsmovements and resettlements during the Mongol period. Under Ogedei’s rule, when the empire was just established, craftsman across the empire started to form workshops to produce textiles. These workshops were centered at Hongzhou, Xunmalin, and Bianjing and focused on different styles and applications[8]. When the Mongols conquered new territories, artists in that area were dispatched to Karakorum or other places in Central Asia to help producing textiles, and these artists would preserve the style of the region they were originally from, providing the Mongols with new weaving techniques and designs[9]. The large-scale flow of artisans ended at early 1270s, when the separated governance between Chinggiz’s descendants were established and Kubilai transferred most of the artisans from the Mongolia to China. The exchange of art and related ideas mainly took place through trade henceforward [10].

[7] Marco Polo, Kindle 469

[8] Watt, 63-65

[9] Watt, 67; Watt & Wardwell, 127

[10] Watt,70



The art amalgamation between Central Asia, China and Islamic territories


The trade route that connected China, Central Asia, and Iran not only allowed the exchange of commodities but also the exchange of designs and motifs of art. The patterns on these textiles traveling across the continent are the intertwinement between the cultures and techniques of these three regions. Cloth of Gold with Winged Lions and Griffins (Fig.3) is representative in reflecting this transcontinental art exchange. This is an example of nasij which the ground and patterns are gold and silk was used to delineate these patterns[11]. On the one hand, the animals, lions and griffins, paired symmetrically and surrounded by roundels, are designs in Islamic art. The tails of the griffins were extremely long and formed a loop before it ends, which corresponds to felines’ tail in Iran design(Fig.4). On the other hand, the floral decoration in the background and the cloud-like decoration on the lion’s wings are characterized by Chinese artworks[12]. This work that combined the motif of Iran and China was accomplished in Central Asia where the Chinese and Iranian artisans were relocated. It was made using a new weaving technique, lampas, that combines using gold on a paper substrate, which is derived in Asia, and using animal substrate, deriving from the Islamic world[13]. A dualistic synthesis between China and Islamic territories can be discerned via this piece of textile. The connection between Chinese and Iran motifs and techniques can be discerned on other works, including the symmetric design of parrots (Fig.5) on a textile utilizing Chinese weaving technique, and the strikingly similar pattern of coiled dragon on both Chinese and Iran textiles(Fig.6 and 7). These motifs and techniques, carrying by the merchants or weavers, were migrating through the continent and combining into unprecedent style and form of textiles.

Fig.3 Cloth of Gold with Winged Lions and Griffins. The Cleveland Museum of Art, Cleveland.


Fig.4 Felines and Eagles. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fig.5 Textiles with paired parrots. Art and History Trust, Courtesy of the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery, Smithsonian Institution.

Fig.6 Coiled dragon design in Iran. Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin.


The art in Central Asia had already influencing the Chinese art before the Yuan dynasty[14]. The artworks in central Asia tended to be more elaborate[15] , and their influence on Chinese textile was demonstrated by Kesi, silk Tapestry. Kesi in the Song and Liao dynasty displays elaborate patterns and colors from the central Asia, and the kesi in China was further modifies by the Mongol rulers in the Yuan Dynasty. During the reign of Temur Khan, the successor of Kubilai, kesi of important figures became appreciated. Rulers commissioned artists to convert the emperors’ and empresses’ paint, as well as some mythical figures, into kesi[16]. An example for this is Yamantaka Mandala with Imperial Portraits (Fig.8) mentioned earlier. This work, created under the direction of a Chinese artist, preserved an elaborate style from the Central Asia and displayed the Mongols’ preference of kesi portraying human figures. These kesi are great indications of the synthesized beliefs and preference in art between China (prior to Yuan), the Central Asia, and the Mongols.


The transcontinental art exchange took place beyond the scope of Iran, Central Asia, and China. In the Golden horde, archeologists found the purse with cloud and crane, which were motifs in Chinese design (Fig.9). Iran, as the western end of the trade route in the Mongol Empire, in addition to a destination, served as an intermediate station for art transmission, by sending artists to or further trading with European and African countries. Patterns related by Chinese design can even be found on textiles in Italy (Fig.10) and further influenced the western art design after the 14th century [18]. Its sphere of influence also reached Egypt, which will be further discussed in the next section.

[11] Watt & Wardwell, 127

[12] Watt & Wardwell, 127

[13] Description of this artwork of Cleveland Museum of Art at this link

[14] Watt & Wardwell, 53.

[15] Rossabi, 217. And this artwork is an apposite demonstration this characteristic.

[16] Watt & Wardwell, 60-61

[17] Watt,262

[18] Watt & Wardwell, 132

Fig.7 Coiled dragon design in China. The Cleveland Museum of Art.

Fig.8 Purse, Golden Horde. State Hermitage Museum, Saint Petersburg.

Fig. 9 Textile with water creatures and dogs, Italy. Formerly Kunstgewerbemuseum, Berlin.


Foreign inscriptions on textiles


Fig. 11 Caftan sewn from a lampas woven textile. David Collection, Copenhagen.

Fig. 12 Detail of the caftan displayed in Fig.11. Drawing by Eiren Shea

Inscriptions on robes were probably originated in Persian lands during the Sasanian Empire (224-651 B.C.) and later became a popular design in western Asia. These robes, called tiraz, were often given to authorities, and the words inscribed were the rulers’ title or phrases that bore with political or religious significances[19]. During the Mongol period, the inscription on the textiles in China probably only serves for decoration purpose. Differ than the inscription in previous dynasties such as Liao and Jin, the inscriptions under the Mongol’s period in China were composed of distorted Arabic letters rather than meaningful words or phrases. Since weavers in Yuan had ample opportunities to encounter Arabic scripts, it was unlikely for these distorted letters to be woven mistakenly[20]. On the caftan displayed in Fig.11, the pseudo inscription (Fig. 12) can be found on the shoulder and down to the arm. It is mainly composed of two Arabic letters: alif and lam. A.S. Melikian-Chirvani argued that the preference of letters was related to esoteric interpretation of letters, which removed the letters implication and used them only by their aesthetics[21], demonstrating a localization of Arabic letters in China. However, even the letters have lost their original meanings, some textiles with inscription in Yuan still served as gifts to prestigious people, and the inscriptions were still conveying something related to salient status like what tiraz did [22]. Going through time and localization, these inscriptions still preserved their original implications.


Also, the inscription of the Chinese character shou(寿, longevity), accompanied with cloud-shaped design, were found in Egypt during the 13th to 14th century(Fig.13 &14). The characters “shou” were not woven in the direction and some character in a same piece were woven upside down, indicating that they may be created in Egypt instead of reaching Egypt through trade[23]. The existence of these designs may be related to the resettlement of artisans to or the trade with Egypt through the Asian continent. But it is also possible that these motifs were spread to Egypt through the ocean route. There were documents that recorded the commerce between Egypt and China thorough sea during the Song dynasty, and this trade might continue in the Yuan dynasty [24]. Though the pathway of “shou” travelling to Egypt was still unclear, its existence in robes definitely shows some connections between the inscription in Egypt and China.


Fig. 13 Textile fragment decorated with Shou and cloud motif, Mamluk period, unearthed in Egypt. The Metropolitan Museum of Art.

Fig. 14 Drawing of a textile fragment decorated with Shou and cloud motif by Eiren Shea

[19] Shea, 29

[20] Shea, 31

[21] Shea, 33

[22] Shea, 35

[23] Shea, 37

[24] Shea, 38





Through examining textiles and the techniques of their production, we can identify the great art exchange took place within and even beyond the Mongol Empire. The peaceful environment and cultural freedom were the prerequisites for the prosperity of art. Mongol rulers has a large demand for textiles since textiles could serve as indications of their prestige or profitable commodities. By distributing agencies from the Ministry of Work to supervise the textile production, introducing western motifs, commissioning art of their own interests, and implementing resettlement of artisans, the Mongols encouraged the design and producing techniques of textiles in different territories to mingle with each other. Motifs were spread from one place to another by merchants bringing exotic artworks or relocated artisans following the style of where they came from. Textiles created in Central Asia by resettled craftsman often utilized a combined weaving technique and showed a hybrid design and from China and Iran. Kesi produced in the Mongol period embodies an integrating style from China and Central Asia and also the Mongol rulers’ predilection of woven human or mythical figures. The new form of foreign inscription, using distorted letters that are devoid of lingual meaning, evidenced a new stage of transcontinental connection achieved during the Mongol period. The flow of artistic ideas and techniques in this period embraced the definition of Pax Mongolica. The unification of Eurasian continent opened the possibilities for all these art and related exchange to take place.



Reference list


1, Primary Sources

Yongle Encyclopedia 永乐大典, ed. by Xie, Jin. (World Digital Library).

Polo, Marco, and Paul Pelliot. The Description of the World. Translated by Sharon Kinoshita, Hackett Publishing Company, 2016.

2, Internet Publications

Rossabi, Morris. “The Mongol Empire and Its Impact on the Arts of China.” Nomads as Agents of Cultural Change, 2014, pp. 214–227., doi:10.21313/hawaii/9780824839789.003.0009.

Watt, James C. Y., and Anne E. Wardwell. When Silk Was Gold: Central Asian and Chinese Textiles. The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1997.

Watt, James C.Y. “A Note on Artistic Exchanges in the Mongol Empire.” The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, by Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

Komaroff, Linda. “The Transmission and Dissemination of a New Visual Language.” The Legacy of Genghis Khan: Courtly Art and Culture in Western Asia, 1256-1353, by Linda Komaroff and Stefano Carboni, The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2002.

Shea, Eiren. “Textile as Traveller: The Transmission of Inscribed Robes across Asia in the Twelfth through Fourteenth Centuries.” Arts Asiatiques, vol. 73, no. 1, 2018, pp. 25–40., doi:10.3406/arasi.2018.1991.

Farquhar, David. “The Government of China under Mongol Rule” (Stuttgart, 1990).

3, Websites

The Metropolitan Museum of Art.”Vajrabhairava mandala”,

The Cleveland Museum of Art. “Cloth of Gold with Winged Lions and Griffins.” Cleveland Museum of Art, 7 Nov. 2020,

The Cleveland Museum of Art. “Tigers Chasing Deer, with Dragon”, 5 Nov. 2020,