Covered jar with carp design, porcelain with underglaze blue and overglaze enamels, 1522-1566. Da Ming Jiajing nian zhi. Ming dynasty. H: 18 in. | Diam: 15 1/2 in. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Eli Lilly. 60.88A-B. Indianapolis Museum of Art© 2012 IMA

Provenance[Mathias Komor] (in March 1951 cat., no. 71 as Jiajing period). Eli Lilly ($3,600.)

The carp on this jar leap and dive among lush aquatic plants. The fish are shown from an unusual vantage point, as if the viewer were underwater too, or as if the jar itself were transparent. A rich variety of meanings is associated with the motif, which has a long history in ceramic decoration. One of the better-known associations is the exchange between two 4th-century BCE Daoist philosophers, Zhuangzi and Huizi. Zhuangzi observed: “See how the fish swim as they please. That’s what fish really enjoy.” When Huizi asked, “How do you know what fish enjoy?” Zhuangzi replied, “You’re not I, so how do you know I don’t know what fish enjoy?” 

The Ming dynasty witnessed the development of enamel overglaze decoration in a palette of brilliant colors, produced by multiple firings. In the first stage, a cobalt-based paint was applied beneath a clear glaze; when the piece was fired, bright blue designs emerged against the white porcelain. Translucent enamels were then applied over the glaze, and the work was fired a second time. Made in the imperial kilns, this covered vessel is one of the few large, similarly decorated jars that demonstrate mastery of this complex technique. It would have endowed its owner with great prestige.

Fish have several popular associations derived from literature, including abundance, pleasure, royalty, and success.