China Underground > China Book Library: Uncover Rich Chinese Literature and Art > Yuan: Chinese Architecture in a Mongol Empire by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt

Yuan: Chinese Architecture in a Mongol Empire by Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt

Last Updated on 2023/11/04

Revisiting Yuan Empire’s Architectural Majesty in Steinhardt’s New Book.

Nancy Shatzman Steinhardt’s latest work, YUAN: Chinese Architecture in a Mongol Empire, published by Princeton University Press, is a detailed examination of architectural developments during the Yuan dynasty (1271-1368). This period, marked by Mongol leadership over China, presents a unique fusion of cultural and architectural traditions, evidenced by the diverse structures that ranged from palaces and temples to tombs and pavilions.

The book, with 264 color illustrations, is not just a visual feast but also an insightful scholarly work that challenges the conventional narrative of Mongols as mere destroyers. Instead, Steinhardt, a professor of East Asian Art and curator of Chinese Art at the University of Pennsylvania, argues that the Mongols were also prolific builders who contributed significantly to the architectural landscape of China.

The Yuan dynasty, established by Khubilai Khan, is often remembered through the prism of figures like Marco Polo, who documented its splendor. Steinhardt delves into the historical cities such as Shangdu—Coleridge’s Xanadu—and the multitude of religious and secular structures erected during this era. The book’s exploration extends to the architecture influenced by Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, Islam, and Christianity.

Steinhardt’s research is comprehensive, utilizing textual sources in various languages and her extensive fieldwork across East Asia. She offers a revisionist perspective that celebrates the Mongols’ architectural achievements and underscores the enduring nature of Chinese building traditions, even under foreign rule.


Steinhardt’s personal journey, starting from her graduate studies in 1974, highlights her deep commitment to understanding the Yuan dynasty’s impact on art and architecture. Her narrative weaves together her academic journey with a broader historical context, reflecting on how early exposure to Yuan artifacts during a time of renewed US-China relations ignited her passion for the subject.

As Steinhardt’s expertise grew, so did the availability of materials and sites for study. The number of Yuan-era buildings and the rich written descriptions by Europeans encountering Chinese architecture for the first time offered a wealth of information. This has allowed her to not only analyze existing structures but also to contextualize them within the historical narratives provided by both Asian and European sources.

Steinhardt’s approach is both academic and personal. Her work is the result of nearly four decades of teaching, research, and exploration, underpinned by the collaborative spirit within the scholarly community. Her journey through the landscapes of Yuan architecture has been both physical, through her travels to remote sites, and intellectual, as reflected in her extensive scholarship.

Her contributions have been recognized and supported by various academic institutions and grants, including the Institute for Advanced Study, the National Endowment for the Humanities, and the University of Pennsylvania. Her commitment to the study of Yuan architecture culminates in this publication, which not only documents but also celebrates the architectural heritage of a period that was once overshadowed by the political narrative of its time.

Topics: Mongol influence on traditional Chinese architecture, Cultural synthesis in Yuan dynasty architectural design, Architectural developments under Khubilai Khan’s rule, Shangdu and the architectural wonders of the Yuan empire, European perspectives on Yuan dynasty architecture, Academic studies of Buddhist structures in Yuan China, Daoist, Confucian, and Islamic architecture in Yuan dynasty

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