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Goldfish Exhibition at the Palace of Prolonging Happiness

Updated: 2019-07-30 14:28:19
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Location: East Side Gallery, Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Yanxi gong)
Dates: 2019-07-30 through 2019-08-30
Admission: free with purchase of general admission ticket

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30 July 2019—Jointly organized by the Palace Museum, National Fisheries Technology Extension Center, and Beijing Municipal Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Areas, the exhibition “Leisurely Bliss: Goldfish-Themed Artifacts of the Palace Museum Collection” is now officially open at the Palace of Prolonging Happiness (Yanxi gong). The Palace Museum’s Party Secretary Du Haijiang, Director Cui Lifeng of the National Fisheries Technology Extension Center, Deputy-Director Ma Liying of the Beijing Municipal Bureau of Agriculture and Rural Areas, and other representatives were present at the opening ceremony and shared comments. The Museum’s Deputy-Director Yan Hongbin hosted the event. The exhibition is divided into two sub-exhibitions with live goldfish and goldfish-themed artifacts. Organized by the Beijing Fisheries Technology Extension Center, the live goldfish exhibition is being held in the courtyard of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness with fish displayed in sixteen wood vats; this sub-exhibition will continue until 11 August. The exhibition of goldfish-themed art from the Palace Museum collection is in the east side gallery of the same palace and will continue until 30 August.

The Chinese people have long enjoyed viewing goldfish and incorporating them into various forms of art as a way of expressing their pursuit of a pleasant life. Bred from wild crucian, goldfish have been domesticated in China from as early as the Southern Song dynasty (1127–1279). Over the past millennium, the goldfish has become a recreational delight in its daintiness, elegance, and range of coloration as it swims among lotus and other aquatic plants. The literati often raised goldfish in their emulation of the philosopher Zhuangzi (late-fourth century BCE) with his carefree, leisurely appreciation of fish. The Chinese word for goldfish (jinyu) is homophonous with the pairing of gold (jin) and jade (yu). This association embodies wishes for a “hall filled with gold and jade” (jinyu mantang) and “celebrations with gold and jade” (jinyu tonghe).

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The display of goldfish in tandem with historical art is an application of combining elements from life (i.e., real objects or living creatures) with cultural artifacts in another innovative exhibition by the Palace Museum. The combination of real goldfish and goldfish motifs in art is an elegant juxtaposition with deep significance. The vivid display “brings cultural artifacts to life” in a modern expression of traditional culture and a practical implementation of General Secretary Xi Jinping’s directive to effectively tell the story of China.

Goldfish in the Palace

The appreciation of goldfish has a long history within the Forbidden City. The Wanli Emperor (r. 1573–1620) of the Ming dynasty (1368–1644) was known as an admirer of this domesticated fish and large basins for raising the fish were placed throughout the palace courtyards. Each year during Mid-Autumn Festival, each palatial courtyard would hold goldfish competitions. After the middle of the Qing dynasty (1644–1911), elite goldfish appreciation reached a new apex as the emperors and nobility enjoyed goldfish raising and had ponds dug for the purpose in their gardens. At its height, the refined pastime boasted 279 varieties of palace goldfish in a dazzling array of colors and features. The imperial palace and princely courtyards employed servants (called yubashi) specially charged with taking care of the fish and related affairs. Archives from the Yongzheng reign (1723–1735) show examples of goldfish presented as tribute to the court; each year the finest varieties would be selected and placed in the ponds of the Imperial Garden at the north end of the Forbidden City. After the demise of the Qing dynasty, palace goldfish were raised as recreation by the general populace. The diligence of hobbyists has preserved both the varieties and their history to the present day. These fish are not merely a leisurely activity but an important part of Beijing’s municipal fish industry. The historical legacy of palace fish enjoys continued appreciation and development.

Palace goldfish (gongting jinyu) have been developed over several centuries through breeding domesticated fish in a cohesive application of China’s millennia-long cultivation of artistry and technical expertise. This exhibition of live goldfish is organized by the Beijing Fisheries Technology Extension Center with almost 200 goldfish in forty-two varieties from Beijing, Shanghai, Tianjin, Wuhan, Nanjing, Fuzhou, Suzhou, and five other regions. Many of the specimens on view are rare breeds typically inaccessible to the general public. Some of the outstanding fish include varieties with red foreheads, bulbous eyes, and elegant fins.

The fish are displayed in traditional wood vats—tastefully titled “wood seas” (muhai) in Chinese. Four vats designed in the shape of gold ingots and measuring 210 cm by 130 cm each and twelve round vats with a diameter of 116 cm have been placed on the east, west, and south sides of the Bower of the Spirit Pool (Lingzhao xuan) within the Palace of Prolonging Happiness. The water is changed regularly, and air-pumps are utilized to ensure the fish have sufficient oxygen. The water temperature and quality are also monitored, and measures have been taken to shelter the fish from sunlight and rain. Trained personnel are on duty patrolling the courtyard to protect against theft or unauthorized feeding.

Delightful Goldfish Motifs

The goldfish-themed art exhibition is found in on the first floor of the venue—the east side-gallery of the Palace of Prolonging Happiness. The curators have selected thirty-four pieces of the finest examples of goldfish motifs from the Museum’s collection. After enjoying the lively fish in the courtyard, visitors may gain a deeper understanding of goldfish art and culture within the gallery.

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The art exhibition is divided into three sections: Joy of Fish, Significance of Fish, and Vessels for Fish. The first section, Joy of Fish, presents various ceramics and embroideries with goldfish motifs. One ceramic vessel is decorated with vivid images of goldfish in vitriol-red with gold paint. The embroidered works include a pair of silk slippers delicately embellished with the utmost detail. The centerpiece of this section is a thirteen-meter-long painting entitled One-Hundred Goldfish (Jinyu baiying tu juan) by Jin Zhang, the mother of Wang Shixiang (1914–2009); painted in the first year (1909) of the Xuantong reign (1909–1911), the work depicts the lively fish through elegant brushwork.

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The second section, Significance of Fish, features the auspicious import of goldfish in traditional Chinese culture. When goldfish (jinyu) are shown swimming through aquatic plants, they represent a “hall filled with gold and jade” (jinyu mantang) and “prosperity and high-status in abundance” (fugui youyu). Goldfish with lotus (lianhua or hehua) represent “successive years of abundance” (liannian youyu) and “celebrations with gold and jade” (jinyu tonghe). Goldfish with pomegranates represent flourishing sons and grandsons, and the pairing of goldfish with wisteria is called “purple tassels with gold seals”, meaning the glory of a high official-position. These auspicious motifs are found in paintings, kesi tapestries, embroidery, mother-of-pearl inlay, colored glass, enamels, and other fine embellishments on hand-held fans, ceramics, fabric for clothing, containers for scholarly accoutrements, snuff bottles, and other articles used in the daily life of a bygone era. Each motif shows the outstanding technical mastery and creativity of the artisans.

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The third and final section, Vessels for Fish, is a display of the basins used to raise fish in the Qing palace courts. Historical archives record how the imperial administration used vessels fashioned from different materials—such as ceramics, enamels, glass, and copper—in a variety of shapes and sizes for raising goldfish in the Forbidden City, Garden of Perfect Brightness (Yuanming yuan), Summer Palace (Yihe yuan), and the Mountain Villa for Escaping Heat (Bishu shanzhuang). This exhibition features goldfish basins with blue dragons-among-clouds designs from the Kangxi (1662–1722), Yongzheng (1723–1735), Qianlong (1736–1795), and Tongzhi (1862–1873) reigns, allowing visitors to see the development of designs used in the creation of goldfish basins.

Through a comprehensive presentation of live goldfish and related art, this exhibition allows visitors to experience the appeal of traditional culture all while serving to promote the legacy of the Beijing fish industry. By virtue of these cooperative efforts, palace goldfish will continue to have a productive development. Additionally, the exhibition benefits goldfish breeding and related exchanges throughout China. Visitors from around the world may enjoy the beauty of these fish beside the Bower of the Spirit Pool (Lingzhao xuan)—the only Western structure built within the Forbidden City during the Qing dynasty—while appreciating traditional culture in this unique museum experience.

Translated and edited by Adam J. Ensign and Zhuang Ying

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