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.