Abstract – The Chinese Fish Tank and Its Global Context

The Chinese Fish Tank and Its Global Context

Wen-Ting Wu


The Art of Fish-Breeding, written by Fan Li (536 BC- 448 AD) from the Spring and Autumn period (771-476 BC), has been regarded as the earliest classical work about fish-breeding. Inthe Song dynasty, the culture of breeding fish has become more popular at courts and among the literati and Brahmin. Around the Ming dynasty, a new way of breeding fish, above all the goldfish, has come into being—the fishes were bred not only in ponds but also in bowl-like or jar-like containers, principally made of ceramic. Therefore, such a culture was popularized more and several literati from this period had contributed writings about fish-breeding. Apart from being a refined pleasure for the literati, to have goldfishes at one’s residence was thought to gain good fortune. The fish-breeding culture was also widespread in Southeast Asia, for example, at the court of Thai, where the kings gave their allegiance to Ming-China.

Nearly a century later, as the great wave of trading Chinese porcelain started, the fish bowls or jars were also on board for shipping. However, by the arrival at their new homes the fish bowls or jars enjoyed the new duties: the large jars for planting trees in the Orangerie of the European palaces or residences, and the bowls as a display item on the feast table together with the luxury dinner service, as cocktail or fruit bowls. My paper seeks to construct a microhistory for the Chinese fish tank of its own culture and how it meets the global context.


Wen-Ting Wu holds a PhD from the Institute of East Asian Art History at the University of Heidelberg, Germany. Her PhD thesis is titled: “Driven by Power: Four Case Studies of the Possession and Appropriation of Chinese Porcelain in 18th-Century Europe and China.” She has worked for several different national museums in Dresden, Gotha, Karlsruhe, and Frankfurt am Main, and her inventorying works and researches have been in the publishing process. Her research focuses on ceramic and its relation to other types of art works, its display, and its world trade networking with approaches of comparative history and material culture studies.