Imperial Dreams of a Carefree Life
Fish under water, darting about among densely growing water plants have been a popular theme of ink painters at least since the Song dynasty (960-1279), when several artists specialized in paintings of fish. It is one of those nature subjects which requires the artist to sharpen his observation directly from nature and allows him to display his mastery in the representation of lively movement.
Apart from their plain function as challenging nature studies, fish paintings carried a symbolic message that would have been immediately obvious to all educated observers. Ever since the compilation of Zhuangzi, a text with origins going back to the late 5th century BC, fish were a frequent subject of allegories. One of the most popular passages in this text is the witty exchange between the Daoist master and a Confucian scholar about the pleasures of fishes:
… Chuang Tzu [Zhuangzi] said, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!”
Hui Tzu [Huizi] said, “You’re not a fish – how do you know what fish enjoy?”
Chuang Tzu said, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”
Hui Tzu said, “I’m not you, so I certainly don’t know what you know. On the other hand, you’re certainly not a fish – so that still proves you don’t know what fish enjoy!”
Chuang Tzu said, “Let’s go back to your original question, please. You asked me how I know what fish enjoy – so you already knew I knew it when you asked the question. I know it by standing here beside the Hao.” 1
Fish as an image of freedom from restraints thus played an important part in Daoist thought since earliest times. It is certainly no coincidence that one of the earliest and most important artists working in this genre, Liu Cai, was active during the reign of Emperor Huizong (r. 1101-1125), who was not only one of China’s greatest connoisseurs and patrons of the arts, but also one it is most fervent Daoist rulers. That the Daoist message was intentional already with these paintings is documented by a colophon on a handscroll dated in accordance with 1291 by Zhou Dongqing, entitled The Pleasures of Fish, which reads 2
Not being fish, how do we know their happiness?
We can only take an ideal and make it into a painting.
To probe the subtleties of the ordinary,
We must describe the indescribable.
It is not surprising that Daoist motifs defined the direction for the craftsmen at the imperial porcelain kilns at Jingdezhen in Jiangxi province as well as other imperial workshops as soon as the court once more manifested Daoist inclinations. The Jiajing Emperor (r. 1522-1566) did not go down in history as a major statesman, nor a particular art lover, but is renowned as a fervent patron of Daoist causes, a staunch believer in the search for fertility and immortality drugs and an admirer of magical practices performed by Daoist adepts. He is known to have spared no expenses for constructions and ceremonies connected with Daoist worship, where pearls, ambergris and gold were employed in lavish profusion.
Jiajing works of art are brimming with Daoist imagery. Most common, however, are auspicious motifs intended to protect the Emperor against the vicissitudes of fortune. We find on Jiajing imperial porcelains in particular motifs thought to be life-prolonging or to ascertain male offspring. The fish-and-waterplant motif has similarly been interpreted as a combination of auspicious symbols in the exhibition catalogue Power and Glory: Court Arts of China’s Ming Dynasty, Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, 2008, p. 210, where in connection with an ink painting of this subject by Miu Fu (active 1426-35) it is explained that the fish represent phallic symbols, that the Chinese word for ‘fish’ is a homophone for ‘abundance’ or ‘profit’, the arrowroots imply compassion and benevolence, and the water lily symbolizes peace and safety.
In seeking to protect against earthbound fate, such auspicious symbolism, which is ubiquitous in Chinese art, is nevertheless a reminder of the vagaries and uncertainties of life that concerned emperors in the same way as commoners, and which Daoist practitioners sought to control. A different and more important aspect of the fish motif, as seen on the present jar, however, seems to be its much more positive, idealized message. Rather than evoking potential doom and eternal worries, the fish are symbols of the happy, carefree life in tune with nature that the Daoists proposed, and which for the most part was far from the reality experienced by the Chinese emperor. As such the design is most remarkable and highly noteworthy for a piece of imperial Chinese porcelain, and its free-spirited, joyful notion is exceptional among Chinese imperial works of art.
The porcelain painters at Jingdezhen had ample models for painting animated scenes of fresh-water fish swimming among water plants. The free composition and vivid execution of the design on this and similar jars beautifully echo the merry spirit of its message. The wucai (‘five colour’) palette used for its depiction is a rare version specific to the Jiajing reign that is particularly complex. The available range of ‘five colours’, consisting of underglaze blue and overglaze red, yellow, green and aubergine, was here enlarged further by a sixth: superimposing red on yellow enamel, which required an additional firing, resulted in a rich golden-orange tone ideally suited to render the colour of golden carp, among the most coveted species of fish in China. This complicated wucai style was developed in the Jiajing period and seems to be restricted to that reign, when it was equally used on other smaller jars and dishes, none of which can compare, however, with the magnificence of large jars such as the present example.
Similar Jiajing fish jars are preserved, for example, in the Shanghai Museum (two jars, see Lu Minghua, Shanghai Bowuguan zangpin yanjiu daxi/Studies of the Shanghai Museum Collections : A Series of Monographs. Mingdai guanyao ciqi [Ming imperial porcelain], Shanghai, 2007, pls. 3-88 and 3-89) and in a large number of Japanese museum collections, e.g. the Hakutsuru Art Museum, Kobe (a pair); the Hakone Museum of Art; the Matsuoka Museum of Art, Tokyo; the Umezawa Kinenkan, Tokyo; the Fukuoka Art Museum; the Yamaguchi Prefectural Museum of Art; the Matsunaga Kinenkan, Odawara; the Aichi Prefectural Ceramic Museum; and one from the Toguri Museum of Art, Tokyo, was sold in our London rooms 9th June 2004, lot 30. Others are illustrated in R. L. Hobson, The Wares of the Ming Dynasty, London, 1923, pl. 26, fig. 1, from the collection of the Comtesse de Beauchamp; one with a 20th-century replacement cover made by a renowned Japanese potter was included in the exhibition Two Rare Chinese Porcelain Fish Jars of the 14th and 16th Centuries, Eskenazi, London, 2002, no. 2; two, formerly in the collection of Henry James and later the Harvard Art Museum were sold at Christie’s New York, 19th March 2009, lots 719 and 721; and one was sold in our London rooms 13th June 1989, lot 238 and again 7th December 1993, lot 235.
Jiajing wucai fish jars retaining their covers are preserved, for example, in the Palace Museum, Beijing (The Complete Collection of Treasures of the Palace Museum. Porcelains in Polychrome and Contrasting Colours, Hong Kong, 1999, pl. 15); the National Museum of China, Beijing (a piece excavated in Chaoyang district, Beijing, see Zhongguo Guojia Bowuguan guancang wenwu yanjiu congshu/Studies on the Collections of the National Museum of China. Ciqi juan [Porcelain section]: Mingdai [Ming dynasty], Shanghai, 2007, pl. 84); the Tianjin Municipal Art Museum (Tianjin Shi Yishu Bowuguan cang ci/Porcelains from the Tianjin Municipal Museum, Hong Kong, 1993, pl. 116); and an example formerly in the collection of Henry Walters and later the Walters Art Museum, Baltimore, was recently sold in our New York rooms, 12th September 2012, lot 262.
1 Quoted after Burton Watson, transl., The Complete Works of Chuang Tzu, New York and London: Columbia University Press, 1970, pp. 188f.
2 The scroll is in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, the inscription quoted after Wen Fong, Beyond Representation. Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th – 14th Century, New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, cat. no. 380.