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?"
In the inscription at the end of the painting the artist has written:
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.
Painted on paper instead of silk, the work's muted colors and flat patterns of pale inkwash evoke a mood of detachment and withdrawal, which Zhou's inscription reinforces. Born in Linjiang, not far from the Daoist center at Mount Longhu (Dragon Tiger Mountain), Zhou may have been strongly influenced by Daoism.
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元 周東卿 魚樂圖 卷
Title:The Pleasures of Fishes
Artist:Zhou Dongqing (Chinese, active late 13th century)
Period:Yuan dynasty (1271–1368)
Medium:Handscroll; ink and color on paper
Dimensions:Image: 12 1/8 x 19 ft 4 in. (30.8 cm x 593.7 cm) Overall with mounting: 12 5/8 x 441 3/4 in. (32.1 x 1122 cm)
Credit Line:From the Collection of A. W. Bahr, Purchase, Fletcher Fund, 1947
Inscription: Artist’s inscription and signature (6 columns in semi-cursive script)
Not being fish, how does one know their happiness? We can only take an idea and make it into a painting. To probe the subtleties of the ordinary, We must describe the indescribable. Painted in the mid-spring of the xinmao year in the Zhiyuan reign era  by Zhou Dongqing of Linjiang.
非魚豈知樂，寓意寫成圖。 欲探中庸奧，分明有象無。 至元辛卯春仲臨江周東卿作。
Dongqing 東卿 Qiutan 秋潭
Unidentified artist, 1 column in standard script, undated (mounted on brocade wrapper):
 Trans. Wen C. Fong, Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy 8th–14th Century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, p. 380.
[ A. W. Bahr , until 1947; sold to MMA]
Kyoto National Museum. "Kachō no bi: kaiga to ishō," October 5, 1982–November 13, 1982.
Art Institute of Chicago. "Taoism and the Arts of China," November 4, 2000–January 7, 2001.
Asian Art Museum of San Francisco. "Taoism and the Arts of China," February 21, 2001–May 13, 2001.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "A Millennium of Chinese Painting: Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," September 8, 2001–January 13, 2002.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Great Waves: Chinese Themes in the Arts of Korea and Japan I," March 1–September 21, 2003.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Painting, Masterpieces from the Permanent Collection," August 28, 2004–February 20, 2005.
Cincinnati Art Museum. "Decoded Messages: The Symbolic Language of Chinese Animal Painting," October 9, 2009–January 3, 2010.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "The Yuan Revolution: Art and Dynastic Change," August 21, 2010–January 9, 2011.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Gardens: Pavilions, Studios, Retreats," August 18, 2012–January 6, 2013.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Masterpieces of Chinese Painting from The Met Collection (Rotation One)," October 31, 2015–October 11, 2016.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Show and Tell: Stories in Chinese Painting," October 29, 2016–August 6, 2017.
New York. The Metropolitan Museum of Art. "Chinese Painting and Calligraphy Up Close," January 25, 2020–June 27, 2021.
Suzuki Kei 鈴木敬, ed. Chûgoku kaiga sogo zuroku: Daiikan, Amerika-Kanada Hen 中國繪畫總合圖錄: 第一卷 アメリカ - カナダ 編 (Comprehensive illustrated catalog of Chinese paintings: vol. 1 American and Canadian collections) Tokyo: University of Tokyo Press, 1982, pp. 24–25, cat. no. A1-123.
Joseph Bell. Metropolitan Zoo. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1985, p. 71.
Fong, Wen C. Beyond Representation: Chinese Painting and Calligraphy, 8th–14th Century. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 1992, pp. 380–83, pls. 83, 83a.
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