Calligraphic license

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Shaing tai asked whether I recognized these characters:

I didn't recognize the two characters, so I asked several Chinese and Japanese friends, and none of them recognized the characters either.  My curiosity piqued, I figured I might as well take a stab on my own to figure out what they were.

The calligraphy was displayed in the office of the Prime Minister of Japan on this occasion:

Zenkoku gyogyō kyōdō kumiai rengō-kai to no menkai
(Meeting with the National Federation of Fisheries Cooperative Associations)

In that name, there are two occurrences of kai 会, which can mean, among other things (e.g., "party; club; assembly"), "meeting" and "association".  Moreover the meeting had to do with fisheries associations.  Consequently, within a few moments, I came to the conclusion that the two dramatically transformed characters are ryō-kai 漁会 ("fisheries association / meeting").

The 会 is basically a not too radical arrangement of the original kanji.  The 漁, while much more difficult to decipher, still has the basic configuration of a "fish" kanji, viz., go ご / gyo ぎょ 魚, sans the three dots water on the left side of go ご / gyo ぎょ / ryō りょう / 漁 (giving only the Sinitic style readings for the two characters) — that's the difference between "fish" and "fishing".  I can still see the stylized head, viscera and bones / belly / body, and tail of the 魚.  Whereas the three dots water signifying "fishing" have been removed, what has been added on either side are flamboyant fins.

That's just my boldly inspired reaction to the calligraphy.  Perhaps others will see it differently.

Selected readings


  1. Stephen L said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 3:08 am it reminds me a lot of the seal script 漁 circled with a red ring here – with yeah the left/right parts looking like fins. It slightly surprising that the 水 water dots seem to have vanished.

  2. Jamie said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 4:20 am

    I read it as “picture-of-a-fish kai” where the picture of a fish is strongly influenced by forms of the kanji.

  3. Daryl said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 5:21 am

    It’s apparently 解衣

  4. Victor Mair said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 6:29 am

    "undress; disrobe" ??

  5. Victor Mair said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 7:44 am

    Using Mandarin pronunciation, jiě yī 解衣 may be short for jiěyī tuīshí 解衣推食 ("treat somebody with great kindness", "show utmost solicitude" — lit., "take off one's clothing [to give to someone else] and offer one's food [to another person]").

    If so, that would be the name / title of the painting, conveying the artist's intended meaning in creating it, not an identification of the two characters, such as I have presented in the OP.

    The source of this set phrase (chéngyǔ 成語) in Records of the Grand Scribe (Shǐjì 史記; 91 BC) can be found here:

  6. Daryl said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 8:18 am

    Given the reference to Zhuangzi, I think it’s 解衣般礴

  7. Jonathan Smith said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 8:53 am

    "解衣" is pretty clearly a good interpretation of the two characters — both resemble early inscriptional forms.

  8. He Zhang said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 3:08 pm

    My immediate reaction for the first character was 鳖 (tortoise), but quickly realized that it has to be 鱼, in the context of fishing organization meeting.

    My instinct for the second word was 业 (simple),or 業 (traditional),meaning business field, like 渔业,渔業. And then,会 makes perfect sense.

  9. George Lane said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 4:16 pm

    My initial reaction was that it looks like the output you get when you ask an AI to generate Chinese characters.
    Knowing the actual characters, I now wonder if the stylized 会 is supposed to represent something as well. A sailboat that the fish is falling into? A wave that it's jumping over?

  10. Victor Mair said,

    August 25, 2023 @ 7:57 pm

    Thanks to all the commenters who made this such an instructive post.

    The reference to Zhuangzi is in the description of the painting on the site Daryl had previously linked to, as here:

    And here is an account of the Zhuangzi story in English:

    Sitting with Clothes Unbuttoned and Legs Stretching Out

    The term originally referred to the appearance of an artist who is concentrating on painting. It has been extended to mean an unrestrained state of mind free from external interruption when an artist is doing creative work. The book Zhuangzi describes a painter drawing freely with his clothes thrown open and legs stretching out. “To unbutton one’s clothes” is to expose one’s chest and arms; and “to sit with legs stretching out” indicates a casual posture while one is concentrating on painting. This term stresses the importance of a relaxed state and complete freedom of mind to the successful creation of quality artwork. This concept had significant influence on subsequent development of theories on calligraphy and painting in later generations.


    With two citations.


    jiěyī bānbó 解衣般礴 ("sitting with clothing unloosened and legs splayed outward; unconstrained; unfettered; relaxed") — there are several different sinoglyphic representations and pronunciations for this phrase near the bottom — cf. Burmese ဖြေ (hpre, “to untie") near the bottom — Proto-Sino-Tibetan *w(y)a-t ~ wit (“to wear; to clothe”)

  11. John Swindle said,

    August 26, 2023 @ 12:50 am

    Took off my jacket for the fish meeting.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    August 26, 2023 @ 6:54 am

    @John Swindle:


  13. Victor Mair said,

    August 26, 2023 @ 7:14 am

    The gentlemen at the fisheries meeting in the Prime Minister's office were practicing what the calligraphy hanging over them preaches: ties untied, lapels flopping aside, suit coats unbottoned — all very 解!

    (More photos at the first link in the o.p., and the one at the top can be impressively embiggened.)

  14. Chas Belov said,

    August 27, 2023 @ 3:51 pm

    I can only read about 300 Chinese characters. I took the first character to be intended to look like a drawing of a fish, but had no idea what character it might be. I do know the character for fish but wasn't able to see it in the character shown.

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