Sun, Aug 05, 2001 - Page 19 News List

Fishing for abundance

Fish are a popular folk motif in Chinese folk culture, signifying abundance and smooth relations

By Chang Ju-ping  /  STAFF REPORTER

The print Blessing Left to One's Children contains images of fish, which in traditional Chinese folk culture have symbolized wishes for plentiful children.

PHOTO COURTESY OF THE NATIONAL MUSEUM OF HISTORY

The fish has long been an auspicious motif in Chinese folk culture. Often it is associated with the meaning of abundance, as in the Chinese New Year's phrase of "nien nien you yu" (年年有魚), in which the character for fish "魚" is a homonym of the character for surplus "餘." During Chinese New Year, paper cut-outs with a fish motif can be seen posted around traditional households to bring good fortune. But the fish motif is taken beyond its function as a folk holiday decoration to be the subject of many exquisite artistic creations, as seen in a current exhibition at the National Museum of History.

The museum spent nearly two years putting together about 150 items with a fish motif from its own collection, ranging from pottery and jade articles to paintings and prints. The oldest item is a Neolithic pottery bowl painted with twin fish, known to be more than 4,000 years old. There is a rich selection of pottery and jade articles from ancient China, while the paintings on display are mostly modern pieces. Two exhibits that are sure to surprise viewers are six fully-stocked fish tanks and the 11.5m-long skeleton of a baby whale on loan from the Penghu culture bureau.

The exhibits on view from the museum's own collection are divided into five categories -- art, religion, literature, folk customs and leisure.

In the art category, a major highlight are oil paintings by Chang Yu (常玉). Chang's Small Fish (小魚) and Fish (魚) both depict images of fish against a vast background, giving a lost and helpless feeling. Ink painting master Chang Da-chien (張大千) is also showcased with four paintings that use his trademark simple strokes to outline fish on silk and rice paper.

Many ancient cultures use animals and creatures as totemic figures during religious rituals. The pottery bowls from the Neolithic period show fish motifs in simple abstract forms, which provide an intriguing contrast to the more complicated and realistic designs of the modern Taiwanese chiao-chih pottery (交阯陶) items that are also on exhibit. Two interesting pieces are a pair of candle holders with dragon heads and fish bodies from the Ching dynasty.

The carp is the favorite among all fishes, as evidenced by the many small bronze and jade accessory items on display. Very often they are paired up in one design. In Chinese folk culture, fish symbolize good relations between couples and accessories with twin fish are good gifts for newly-weds. One of the more mysterious pieces is a Tang Dynasty gilt bronze belt ornament. Its fish pattern, with a monster head, is thought to have been imported from the West, as it resembles the Capricorn zodiac sign with a goat's head and fish's tail.

On specific occasions, paper cut-outs and colorful prints with fish motifs are appropriate gifts for married couples, as fish in these cases also symbolize abundance of offspring. Two prints on view that touch on this theme are Have Abundance Yearly (連年有魚) and Blessing Left to One's Children (餘蔭貴子), which blend images of children and fish.

Art Notes:

What: Exhibition of the Fish Symbolism in the Arts

Where: National Museum of History (國立歷史博物館), 49 Nanhai Rd., Taipei (臺北市南海路49號)

When: Until Sept. 23

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