Saturday in the Museum with Dongqing

Image: Zhou Dongqing, The Pleasures of the Fish (1291).

This weekend’s art post is a close up of a fish that is part of a much larger scroll from Imperial China. It is inspired by an ancient script.

The Pleasures of the Fish is by Zhou Dongqing and dates to the 13th century. It is in the holdings of the Met in New York, though not currently on display. The Met description indicates that the artist was pondering an ancient text that questioned our ability to know what others think and a variation on the classic rhetorical move:

Zhou Dongqing was a friend of Wen Tianxiang (1236–1283), the famous Song loyalist and a fellow native of Jiangsi Province. Zhou’s painting was inspired by a passage from the Daoist classic Zhuangzi (ca. fourth century B.C.), in which Zhuangzi, strolling along a river, observes, “See how the minnows come out and dart around where they please! That’s what fish really enjoy!” His companion Huizi remarks, “You’re not a fish—how do you know what fish enjoy?” Zhuangzi replies, “You are not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?”

Zhou’s inscription plays with this exchange:

Not being fish, how do we know their happiness?
But we may express our feelings in our painting.
In order to probe the subtleties of the ordinary,
We must describe the indescribable.

The Met notes little about the artist’s life other than, “Born in Linjiang, not far from the Daoist center at Mount Longhu (Dragon Tiger Mountain), Zhou may have been strongly influenced by Daoism.” A favorite of the last Southern Song “prime minister” who would inscribe his works.

The full scroll can be seen on the Met site, but here is a sense of it:


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