T he deep fish pond on this dazzling bowl exudes an irresistible warm sentiment that instantly touches the heart. The bowl is unrivalled in its design, its painting quality, shape and size, and only two comparable smaller pieces appear to exist, both in the National Palace Museum, Taipei. Although the fish pond design has been frequently used as a motif on Chinese porcelain, it is hardly ever infused with as much life as on the present bowl, whose shape cleverly evokes the illusion of gentle underwater motion.
Fish paintings were a recognized, if not widespread, genre of Chinese ink painting since the Song dynasty (960-1279), perhaps made popular through Liu Cai, a court painter of the late Northern Song (960-1127) specialized in paintings of fishes. The most famous painting attributed to him is the two-and-a-half-meter long handscroll Fish Swimming amid Falling Flowers today in the St. Louis Art Museum (97:1926.). The representation of fishes and their movements was perceived as a task yet more challenging than the depiction of other animals and birds, because their habitat impedes observation, and the resulting naturalism is awesome for painters not working directly from nature.
AN EXCEPTIONALLY LARGE, FINE AND IMPORTANT BLUE AND WHITE LOBED 'FISH POND' BOWL MARK AND PERIOD OF XUANDE. ESTIMATE UPON REQUEST.
The topos of fishes swimming in a pond was in China inextricably associated with one of the most famous passages of the book Zhuangzi by Zhuang Zhou (c. 369-c. 286 BC), Daoism’s foremost thinker, where fish feature frequently in allegories. In this passage the free-thinking spirit of Zhuangzi, who comments on the pleasures of fishes darting around where they please, is opposed by the methodological reasoning of the Confucian Huizi, who challenges the Daoist’s legitimacy to talk about the feelings of fishes, not being a fish himself. After some exchanges, the Daoist eventually wins the argument by refusing to submit to his opponent’s formal logic.
The ‘Pleasures of Fishes’ thus became a byword for freedom from restraints, one of the perennial ideals of China’s literati, which represented either unachievable dream, for the members of the bureaucracy, or perceived reality, for those who had withdrawn from it. Daoist thought flourished in the early Ming period (1368-1644), although the Xuande Emperor (r. 1426-35) did not propagate himself as a particularly fervent proponent of Daoism. Among the imperial princes, however, patronage of Daoist causes was strong enough to provoke several memorials to be handed in to the court, which requested a ban on the furthering of new Daoist monasteries (Richard G. Wang, The Ming Prince and Daoism. Institutional Patronage of an Elite, Oxford, 2012).
ZHU ZHANJI (1399-1435), THE XUANDE EMPEROR, LOTUS POND AND PINE TREE, HANDSCROLL, INK AND COLOURS ON SILK MING DYNASTY, XUANDE PERIOD © PALACE MUSEUM, BEIJING
Even without the philosophical significance of this motif in mind, the serene state of the four fat fishes floating through water plants, seemingly at total ease within their surroundings, is palpable when immersing oneself in this pond, which emanates an air of peace and contentment. Grouped in two pairs, the fishes depict a carp and a mandarin fish, or Chinese perch, each confronted with a type of bream, fangyu, characterized by the bumpy forehead often developed by older fishes. While the former two are well known from Chinese porcelain designs, the latter, although, like the other two species, part of China’s staple diet for centuries, are rarely depicted on porcelain. The fishes are alternating with three large and two small clumps of lotus with fully opened blooms, buds, pods and large leaves in different stages of development, interspersed with long undulating fronds of pond weeds, clumps of clover fern and some fallen flowers. The latter may be meant to evoke the enchanting topic of Liu Cai’s painting, where some fishes are chasing blossoms shed by an overhanging flowering branch. The deep, barbed mallow shape of the bowl, with ten sharp ridges inside and with the foot cut to correspond, cleverly reinforces the impression of rippling waves and together with the naturalistic depiction of the fishes creates an astonishingly vibrant, lively effect.
LOTUS POND MOTIF ON THE 'FISH POND' BOWL
On the present bowl, the painters managed to exploit the cobalt pigment to maximum effect and to create an amazingly rich tonal variation in this monochrome palette: the fishes are drawn with dark blue outlines and details over pale blue washes; on the leaves the veins are in contrast reserved in white, being incised through the blue washes down to the porcelain body; and the large leaves that are rendered with frayed edges, as if about to wilt, are accentuated with dark heaping and piling, a feature that appears to have been deliberately induced.
A large wilting lotus leaf, similarly rendered with fuzzy edges, appears next to a diminutive bird in an ink painting of a lotus pond signed yubi (‘imperial brush’), executed by the Xuande Emperor, who was not only a devoted patron of the arts but is also considered as a gifted artist himself; see Craig Clunas and Jessica Harrison-Hall, eds, Ming. 50 Years that Changed China, The British Museum, London, 2014, p. 177.