The Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), during which time the Mongols dominated China, was one of great distress for the Chinese. For the first time in their history, the entire country was under foreign control. With the abolishment of civil-service examinations, the traditional government career of the scholar-gentry class was eradicated. The literati retreated to their homes and supported themselves through painting. The Yuan dynasty thus represents a break in the continuity of Chinese landscape painting. A time of nostalgic return to the past, it also saw the emergence of new directions in the function of painting, which became not just representational but a means of self-expression.
Zhu Derun was a distinguished man of letters and one of the finest painters of the Yuan dynasty. Zhu’s conservative style of rendering rocks and trees is drawn from the early landscape masters of the tenth century. Starting at the right, the composition begins with a thatched house in a clearing among mountains and trees; inside a man sits reading, the head of a woman visible through a right-side window. Continuing left, a path leads across a bridge to a village in the middle ground and then to distant mountains, which recede into the mist. A traveler approaching the bridge, accompanied by his servant, is returning to his home. In keeping with the innovative character of Yuan-period works, Zhu has skillfully combined two Northern Song (960–1127) modes of landscape painting. The sharp, spiky depiction of the gnarled trees follows the manner of the tenth-century masters Li Cheng and Guo Xi, while the soft, round forms of the rocks spotted with rich, black dots of vegetation are painted in the manner of two other tenth-century masters, Dong Yuan and Ju Ran. The theme of the scholar-official returning home to withdraw from the troubles of the world is common in Yuan painting, a reaction to the traumatic mood of the period.