During their nine decades of rule, the Mongols of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368) had focused on extracting as much wealth as possible from their Chinese subjects, in the process rejecting or altering many Chinese traditions.
After overthrowing the Yuan in 1368, the first Ming dynasty rulers looked to the traditions of earlier Chinese dynasties, particularly those of the Tang (618–906) and Song (960–1279) dynasties, in efforts to legitimize their rule and to build a system of governance. One clear reflection of this can be seen in court paintings.
Although in the Ming dynasty there was no true art academy at court — as there had been during the Song dynasty — Ming emperors sought artists working in Song styles and themes to decorate their palaces and provide a visual link to the earlier dynasty’s much-admired traditions.
By the beginning of the Ming dynasty, Confucianism had been the dominant Chinese philosophy for more than 1,500 years. Of all the Confucian commentaries, those written during the Song dynasty had the greatest impact on Confucianism’s later practice. Influenced by these commentaries, Confucianism during the Ming dynasty placed its prime emphasis on maintaining proper relationships in society; the relationship between ruler and subject — viewed as analogous to that of father and son — served as the foundation for the education and philosophy of the Ming court. Benevolence, loyalty to state and family, and observance of established rituals were highly prized.
The impact of Confucian teachings can also be seen in the choice of themes for arts patronized by the court and in civil service recruitment and training methods.