In 1271, Kublai Khan formally established Yuandadu, now Beijing, as the capital the its new Yuan Dynasty. By 1279, all of China had been besieged by the armies of the Mongol empire. Chinese literati were ultimately compelled to adapt to life under Mongol rule, and many members of this educated class cooperated with the powers that be as mandated by Confucian principles addressing their service to any traditional governing state. There were others, though, the outlaw elite amongst them, who felt alienated from the government, and sought either to avoid or to shun service.

As this substantial number of educated men were free by choice of the burdens of government responsibilities, some of them who were so inclined were able to apply their education, experience, attention to artistic endeavours, devoting themselves to painting in a unique literati style derived from expertise in calligraphic brushwork rather than in the technical painting per se that characterised earlier academic painters.