Comme un poisson dans l'eau

Symbolism of the fish in China and Japan

18 November 2005 - 23 April 2006


Anyone browsing through a book on Chinese or Japanese art will quickly realise that the animals which inhabit East Asian decorative motifs are not the same as in Western art, but belong to an entirely separate category of mythological and realistic beasts.

Many Chinese and Japanese decorative designs may appear rather ordinary at first sight, while in actual fact concealing within them sometimes complex messages, to be deciphered by those who understand the code. The fish is one of numerous means by which such hidden messages may be conveyed.

Through watching fish evolve in their natural habitat, East Asian artists have assigned a wide range of attributes to them: their ability to reproduce in large numbers have made them a emblem of regeneration and numerous offspring; their habit of swimming in pairs has made them obvious symbols of the happily-wedded couple, representations of yin and yang.

The esteem in which the fish is held is reflected in the number of stories and legends associated with it. The most widespread of these, both in China and in Japan, is undoubtedly that of the carp which swims upstream and manages, after great hardships, to transform itself into a dragon. This is a metaphor for the long years of difficult studies which candidates for a post in the bureaucracy go through and who, having succeeded in overcoming the imperial exams, find themselves in the service of the personified dragon, the Emperor himself. In decorative motifs, artisans represent all stages of this transformation, from the carp to the dragon, through the intermediate level of the dragon-fish.

Through a selection of over 120 objects, this exhibition offers a glimpse of the numerous meanings which the fish can represent in Chinese and Japanese decoration. In the first rooms, the visitor will discover the Chinese variations of this theme on porcelains, jades and snuff bottles dating mainly from the Qing dynasty (1644-1911). The third room presents Japanese lacquer ware, netsuke, sword furnishings and prints from the Edo (1615-1868) and Meiji periods (1868-1912).