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Young Nobleman on Horseback
by Qian Xuan (about 1235-1300)
Yuan dynasty, dated 1290
Handscroll: ink and polychrome on silk
Height: 29.7 cm
Width: 75.6 cm
Acquisition number: #OA 1954.12-11.05 (Chinese Painting Add. 286)
Gift of P.T. Brooke Sewell

Image courtesy of the British Museum (copyright reserved)

During the Yuan period, a dilemma faced the scholars and bureaucrats who had previously worked for the Song government. The Mongols distrusted these former officials, but at the same time, they had need of their administrative skills. Those that decided to serve under the invaders were often vilified in later histories, while those who refused to serve the Mongols were celebrated as yimin, "left-behind subjects," highly principled bureaucrats who preferred to live in obscurity and endure hardship rather than acknowledge the legitimacy of the Yuan dynastic reign.

Qian Xuan (c. 1235-after 1301) was one such yimin. He had garnered fame as a painter prior to the fall of the Song, and under Mongol rule he turned to his art in order to support himself. He painted a number of composition types, included landscapes, bird-and-flower paintings, and figure paintings intended to illustrate proper Confucian attitudes and behavior.

This composition features a young nobleman mounted on a horse, a common enough theme during the Yuan period; this painting, however, is rendered in a style reminiscent of earlier Six Dynasties period (220-589 CE). Many yimin artists explored archaic styles and motifs in a conscious effort to evoke the grandeur of a simpler and nobler time.

The presence of an inscription (not illustrated) by Zhao Mengfu (1254-1322), a literatus who served under the Mongols and rose high in the ranks of the Yuan court, makes for an interesting ideological dichotomy in a single work. The inscription reads:

Wuling is in the prime of youth, Energetic and restless, with white steed and golden saddle, He is in high spirits, Holding his bow he calls the oriole, but no oriole comes. Ancient catalpa1 and setting sun: what can be done about age? (translated by R. Whitfield)2

(1) "Catalpa" is a genus of tree indigenous to East Asia.

(2) See the British Museum web page dedicated to this object.