Float Among the Hermit Scholars of "Fishermen, after Jing Hao"

See how Wu Zhen united the “three perfections”—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—in this 18 foot long scroll.

Fishermen after Jing Hao, Stacked Scroll (partial) (c. 1341) by Wu Zhen and 吳鎮Smithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

Painted entirely in ink, this work of art, called a handscroll, shows sixteen fishermen, many of whom are scholar-hermits, boating on a wide stretch of water. A continuous scroll, here the first 9 feet are sliced and stacked to provide an overview. It reads right to left, top to bottom.

[scholar-hermits – educated people who live in voluntary isolation from society and people.]

Fishermen, after Jing Hao (ca. 1341) by Wu ZhenSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

The entire handscroll is eighteen feet long and is dotted with fifteen small boats. 

[handscroll – a long, narrow format for painting and writing that is rolled open horizontally and is read from right to left.]

Each boat contains at least one of the fishermen either napping...



...or enjoying the scenery.

The poetry notes that one boat is even hidden behind a mountain. 

The handscroll combines the “three perfections”—poetry, calligraphy, and painting—that are similar types of artistic expression. The Chinese scholar class took special pleasure in works of art that combined poetry, calligraphy, and painting. 

Huang Gongwang Portrait (1347/1351) by Huang GongwangOriginal Source: The National Palace Musuem

The handscroll is attributed to Wu Zhen (1280–1354), one of the Four Masters of the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368), who include among their number Huang Gongwang, pictured here.  Although Wu Zhen was well-educated—like many of the Chinese scholar class of his time—he never attempted to become a government official, which was a typical job for educated people during this time period.    

[Four Masters - four Chinese painters (Huang Gongwang, Wu Zhen, Ni Zan, and Wang Meng) who were active during the Yuan dynasty (1279–1368).]

Khubilai Khan Portrait (1264-02) by AranikoOriginal Source: Wikipedia via the National Palace Museum

The Yuan dynasty was foreign ruled, founded by the Mongols through military conquest and occupation. 

[Mongols – an ethnic group from present-day Mongolia and northern China united by Genghis Khan in the early 1200s.]

Fishermen, after Jing Hao (ca. 1341) by Wu ZhenSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

As a result, many native Chinese scholars withdrew from public life to pursue personal academic and artistic improvement, and many created art that contained statements of political protest. 

Scholar-hermits as lone fishermen is one of Wu Zhen’s favorite painting themes. Wu Zhen used the figure of a lone fisherman in his painting to reflect his views about service in government while also revealing his choice to become a hermit.  

Mount Kuanglu (ca. 900) by Jing HaoOriginal Source: National Palace Museum

Like many Yuan dynasty painters, Wu Zhen was inspired by ancient art, and he wrote at the end of this handscroll that he created it after seeing an earlier version of the fishermen theme by the artist Jing Hao (ca. 855–915).

Fishermen, after Jing Hao (ca. 1341) by Wu ZhenSmithsonian's National Museum of Asian Art

As you unroll the handscroll from right to left, this is the first poem, which is written next to the fisherman. 

The fisherman stretches out one foot and lays his hand on an oar. He is not fishing.

Cursive Script

The poem was written in small-size cursive script, a calligraphy style Wu Zhen was very talented at producing. In cursive script, individual strokes often flow together in a single, continuous movement of the artist’s brush. It is a powerfully expressive style that allows the artist to freely express themself through brush and ink. 

The poem reads: 

Out on Cavern Courtyard Lake, the evening wind is born,
    Wind strikes the lake’s heart where a leaf is crossing.
       Magnolia oar steady,
Light, his robes of grass,
       He only fishes perch fish and does not fish for fame. 

The resting scholar-hermit

This figure is wearing a scholar’s cap, which symbolizes the life Wu Zhen decided not to pursue. The scholar-hermit lies prone with his face to the side. The boat canopy is open at the sides. 

The resting scholar-hermit

The poem above him reads: 

He readjusts his silken line, about to row his boat,
At river’s head just now, the moon is shining bright and round.
Wine jug upside-down,
   Hanging in grass and flowers, He casts aside his fishing rod, treads moonlight in his sleep.    


The bare-chested fisherman

This bare-chested fisherman is not fishing; he is staring at the sky. 

The poem that accompanies this image of a hermit-fisherman reads: 

A fishing boat drifts by the shore in fading sunset, 
Out on Green Grass Lake, the sky is turning to dusk.
See the white birds    

               Descending to the level stream,
Dots that pierce a myriad li* of Xiao-Xiang River mist. 

 [*a li is about one-third of a mile] 

The fishing fisherman

This fisherman, who is seated in his boat, casts a fishing line.  The associated poem can be translated as follows:    

Why is his silken line made so very frail and thin?
He only goes into the lake to feed a single person.
The son of the Duke of Ren,
         And the giant of the Dragon Earl,
Bent mountain-size hooks and cut up ocean monsters. 

The standing fisherman

Standing still on his boat with his arms outstretched, this figure is accompanied by the following poem: 

At the utmost end of the creek where the two shores converge,
Faint reflections of rosy clouds play upon the emerald waves. 
 His lonely craft small,
            Gone on the boundless main,
Below which sandy islet does his family home lie? 

The bearded fisherman

This bearded fisherman wears a straw hat and is paddling. 

The poem above him reads:

Snowy beard and moustache, this venerable oldster
Can take his little oar to stir the vast empyrean.*
There’s a tiny bit of rain,
      Just now there is no wind, How fine is it to be on Five Lakes’ misty waters. 
[*The “empyrean” is the highest heaven.]

The paddling figure

The poem accompanying the man who is kneeling forward and paddling reads: 

In the cover of green willows, evening light is faint, 
The glowing sun sinks in a myriad li* of rosy clouds. 
Striking his oar as he goes,
                He cannot yet come home,
Suddenly startled, sand gulls fly off in a whoosh.

[*a li is about one-third of a mile]

The poem associated with an unseen figure

The poem associated with a figure who is hidden behind the mountain reads:

Moon shifts mountain reflection, illumines a fisherman’s boat,
The boat moves, bearing the mountain, with the moon in front.
Mountain steep and tall,
                   Moon lovely and alluring,
In a single fisherman’s song, the mountain and moon connect.
No Boat. 

The dozing-off figure

This figure with a topknot (his hair gathered on top of his head) dozes off, holding his paddle, waiting for the moon to peek out from behind the clouds. 

The poem written alongside him reads:

Wind ruffles the Long River, waves ruffle the wind,
Fish and dragons mix and mingle in the same stream.
Hiding up the deep creek,
             Tied to a long-lived pine,
He only waits for clouds to clear, moon in the sky. 

The gazing fisherman

Gazing ahead, this fisherman is dressed in the robes of a government official, showing the viewer what he must have been in his previous life.

The poem above him reads:

Little skiff for a boat, what strength does he need?
At the river head, clouds and rain half intermingle.
If he is diligent enough,
             Rides the long waves down,
When tides rise at midnight, he will have no worries.

The reclining figure

This figure reclines in the hold of his boat under the shade of a large tree. 

The poem for this figure reads:

Mountains glow in the last fading glimmer of sunset;
Clouds rise, clouds clear, and shadows turn to light.
As the wind moves its feet,
                      And waves spring to life, He hears the sound of night rain on the empty awning.    


The fisherman pulling in a catch

This fisherman braces his legs and raises his arm to steady his fishing line to pull in a catch.
The poem above him reads:

No cause to drop one’s line in the center of the pool;
Fish are big, the boat light, his strength not enough.
Anxious he’ll capsize,
                    Concerned to keep afloat, He goes light in everything and stays away from depth.

The sitting fisherman

This fisherman sits with his legs folded and casts his fishing line. 

The poem reads:

He’s caught a red-scale fish, drags it from the water;
Its brocade scales of mottled color follow on the hook.
It shakes its crimson tail,
                       And puffs its reddish gills;
He does not envy Yan Ling sitting on his fishing ledge.

Scholar-hermits as lone fishermen

In the handscroll, most of the fishermen wear robes and government official hats. This suggests they are actually hermit scholar-officials. The figure in this image sits on his fishing boat deep in thought, paying no  attention to his surroundings.   

The poem accompanying the figure reads: 
 Wind and light at Five Peaks surpass all else around; 
Ducks and geese out on the river are his closest kin, 
 Clouds beat the shore,
              Billows stir and toss;
Mist so deep on Green Grass Lake, people can't be seen.

The figure emerging from the canopy

The poem written alongside this figure who is emerging from the boat’s canopy reads: 

This boatman in his little skiff has no name at all;
In bottle gourds he takes his wine, lives a life of joy.
Fragrant paddy rice,
                Luscious water-mallow soup; He rows the moonlight, piercing clouds, going as he will.    


The fisherman accompanied by an attendant

 At the end of the vast stretch of water, a man fishes intently while his young attendant manages the oar at the rear of their boat. In this handscroll, this is the only boat with two figures.

The poem inscribed next to this last boat reads: 
Peach blossom waves rise on Five Lakes in spring, 
A single leaf upon the wind, gone ten thousand li*. 
His fishing line is thin, 
                       The fragrant bait shared out, 
From the start, he was not a man who catches fish

[*a li is about one-third of a mile]

The postscript by Wu Zhen

At the end of the handscroll, there is a postscript by Wu Zhen that was added ten years after he completed the painting. 

[postscript – an additional statement that provides further information.]

In the postscript, Wu Zhen writes: “When I later saw Jing’s painting Fishermen, after an artist of the Tang, which was very like this in composition, I copied it forthwith and made this scroll.”

The postscript informs us that the painting was inspired by a scroll that was painted by Jing Hao (ca. 855–915) about 200 years before Wu Zhen’s scroll was painted. Jing Hao was a popular painter admired by the Chinese scholar class of the Yuan dynasty.

Credits: Story

For additional learning resources, visit Teaching China with the Smithsonian

All translations by 
Stephen D. Allee
Associate Curator for Chinese painting and Calligraphy
Smithsonian National Museum of Asian Art Museum

Story Design by 
Marc Bretzfelder
Emerging Media Producer
Smithsonian Office of the Chief Information Officer

Credits: All media
The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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