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Interesting findings & case studies on commonly misunderstood and mystery images

People who are not familiar with Chinese history and parables may have the impression that the above image is a genre painting of fisherman’s daily life. But in fact, there is more meaning to it. Dr Yibin Ni will explain the story in detail and how this story scene has been presented in various forms of artworks.

The story scene refers to an old Chinese saying: in the fight between the sandpiper and the clam, the fisherman has the best of it. This parable came from an ancient Chinese text entitled ‘Strategies of the Warring States (战国策 Zhanguo Ce)’. The book contains anecdotes of diplomacy and warfare during the Warring States period (5th to 3rd centuries BC).

The State of Zhao (赵国) was planning to attack the State of Yan (燕国). Su Dai (苏代) was sent by the State of Yan to the State of Zhao to try to prevent the imminent calamity. During the audience that Su Dai had with King Huiwen of Zhao (趙惠文王, 310-266 BCE, r. 298-266 BCE), he found a clever way to persuade the king to change his mind. Here is Su Dai’s speech:

When I was leaving my country crossing the Yi River (in the present-day Yi County, Hebei province), I saw a clam lying open, enjoying the sunshine on the bank. Out of the blue, a sandpiper flew down and tried to snatch a morsel to eat between its shells. The clam promptly slammed its shells shut, locking the sandpiper’s beak in between. The sandpiper tried to wriggle out of the situation, saying, ‘If it doesn’t rain today and it doesn’t rain tomorrow, there will be a dead clam on the river bank.’ The clam retorted, ‘If I don’t let you go today and nor do I tomorrow, there will be a dead sandpiper on the river bank.’ While they grappled in a dead lock, a fisherman passed by and picked both up with very little effort. Now, if your majesty launched an attack on Yan, Yan would certainly try to resist your invasion. And the fight between the two countries would make both weak and then the State of Qin would be acting as that ‘fisherman’. I urge your majesty to reconsider your plan.

The king of Zhao got the message from Su’s story and called off the military campaign.

As a cautionary tale, this parable has been favoured by Chinese people for two millennia and has often been made into 2D or 3D images to educate the young.

Read Dr Yibin Ni‘s research blog here regarding how this important pictorial motif was rediscovered from previous research papers and museum catalogues that only took it as genre painting.

When the Baron of the Zhou vassal state (周西伯) did a divination with oracle bones for his imminent hunting trip, the message came: ‘You will not catch a small bear or a large bear, but a teacher will be presented to you by the divine power.’ After bathing and fasting for three days, the baron arrived at the River Wei, he saw an elderly man sitting on a grassy mat with a fishing rod beside him at the bank. The baron respectfully bowed to him and politely asked him to be his mentor. He invited the man to sit in his vehicle on the way back to the capital. This elderly man was Jiang Ziya (姜子牙), the famous sage strategist in ancient China. Later, when the baron passed away, his son, who posthumously bestowed his father the title of King Wen (文王), called himself King Wu (武王). With the able assistance of Jiang, who was then respectfully called Jiang Taigong (姜太公), King Wu launched a military campaign to overthrow the ruling Shang house (商, ca. 1600 BCE-1046 BCE) and established the new Zhou dynasty (1046 BCE-256 BCE), which lasted about eight hundred years.

Here is another story about Jiang Ziya on his assistance to King Wu in launching a military campaign to overthrow the Shang house. Dr Yibin Ni also wrote an article on the identification of Jiang’s famous yet mysterious ride.

References:

  1. 倪亦斌:《子牙垂钓遇文王 明君得辅破殷商》,《读者欣赏》,兰州:读者出版传媒股份有限公司,2016-05,58-63 页
  2. Jeffrey P. Stamen and Cynthia Volk with Yibin Ni (2017), A Culture Revealed: Kangxi-Era Chinese Porcelain from the Jie Rui Tang Collection 文采卓然:潔蕊堂藏康熙盛世瓷, Jieruitang Publishing, Bruges, pp. 92-93.

These set of images portray the last moment of the life of Qu Yuan 屈原 (340-278 BCE), an important Chinese poet and politician, who was in exile in the wilderness because of his unsuitable political stance in court. He was talking with a fisherman on the bank of the Miluo River (汨罗江) in Hunan province before he threw himself into water in despair. In Qu Yuan’s autobiographical poem the ‘Fisherman’, the fisherman recognised the dishevelled man and greeted him. Qu Yuan claimed: ‘The whole world is soiled and I alone am clean; all men are drunk and I alone am sober (‘举世皆浊我独清,众人皆醉我独醒’) – that’s why I’ve ended up like this.  I would rather jump into the river, bury myself in the bellies of fishes than sully my own purity in this vulgar world.’ The fisherman offered him a subtle metaphor before he rowed away: ‘When the water in the river is clear, it’s fit to clean my hat-tassels; when the river water is muddy, it will still suffice to wash my feet.’

Today, the Chinese people still commemorate Qu Yuan’s death by eating pyramid-shaped rice dumplings wrapped in leaves and taking part in dragon boat races on the fifth day of the fifth month of the traditional lunisolar Chinese calendar.

Communities in Vietnam and Korea also celebrate variations of this Dragon Boat Festival (龙舟节) as part of their shared cultural heritage.