Images of fish have been used to decorate Chinese ceramics from the Neolithic period, and have remained a popular theme - providing both shape and decoration. Vessels made in the form of fish, especially two confronted fish, were popular among both high- and low-fired wares during the Tang dynasty (AD 618-907). Fish also provided decoration on the ceramics of this period, as can be seen on the famous blue-decorated earthenware jar in the Museum of Decorative Art, Copenhagen, illustrated by M. Sato and G. Hasebe in Sekai toji zenshu - 11- Sui Tang, Tokyo, 1976, p. 71, no. 51. The Song dynasty (960- 1279) saw an even greater use of fish for decoration on ceramics. Amongst the most elegant were the fish carved and incised under the glaze of the classic Northern Song Ding wares, such as that carved in the interior of the large basin in the Percival David Foundation (see M. Medley, Illustrated Catalogue of Ting and Allied Wares, Percival David Foundation, London, 1980, pl. IV, no. 22), and molded on Northern Song or Jin dynasty Ding wares such as the current dish, and a similar vessel with paired fish and lotus in the Idemitsu Art Museum, Tokyo, illustrated in Special Exhibition - Jixiang - Auspicious Motifs in Chinese Art, Tokyo National Museum, 1998, p. 67, no. 43.
Fish have many auspicious associations in Chinese culture. Among other things, the early Daoist philosopher Zhuangzi ( 369-298 BC) consistently used fish to exemplify creatures who achieve happiness by being in tune with their environment. Much of the popularity of fish as a decorative theme, especially in later dynasties, hinges on the fact that the word for fish, yu, is a homophone for the word for abundance or surplus - thus two fish represent doubled abundance and a gold fish an abundance of gold. The depiction of fish in water, as on the current dish, has also come to provide a rebus or visual pun for yushui hexie, 'may you be as harmonious as fish and water'. Such symbolism is particularly appropriate in the context of marriage, and decoration including two fish additionally symbolizes both fertility and conjugal happiness in the same context. On the current dish the fish are shown with lotus. One word for lotus in Chinese is he, which sounds the same as the word for harmony and thus reinforces that theme. Another word for lotus is lian, which suggests the word for 'successive', which is appropriate in the context of both progeny and harmony.
This dish was examined by Fujio Koyama, one of the most well-known scholars of Ding ware, who assisted with the excavation of the kilns circa 1930s. The inner box bears his inscription on the interior, referring to the bowl as Ding ware of the Northern Song dynasty.