Friedrich Zettl Zen Fish painting

Bada Shanren Fish – Daoist Talks (IX)

natural 自然 – a key topic in Daoism

Bada Shanren and naturalness: [1] We generally think that the term nature, natural is clearly defined and means the same thing to us all. May I start with a little story: A dear friend of mine has a lovely little daughter. The girl loves strawberry yogurt more than anything and has clearly defined her favorites on the supermarket shelf. My friend bought fresh strawberries at a farmer’s market and made strawberry yogurt for her daughter. She tasted skeptical and then refused to eat anymore. They wouldn’t taste good. “But why is that?” “They don’t taste natural”. Her favorite yogurt was advertised as: “XY yogurt. The one with the natural taste”.

It’s an excellent example to start with the opposite of what Daoism calls nature, naturalness. The opposite is cuo-zuo, done [2]. The artificial silk blouse with the natural feel is “cuo-zuo” and has nothing to do with nature. Just as little as that Eau de Toilette with the “natural freshness of lime” – which contains as much natural lime as a brick.

“Naturalness” in the Daoist sense

First a definition [3]: “Ziran is a fundamental concept in Taoism that can be understood as “naturalness” or “spontaneity.” It refers to the inherent nature and self-so of all things, emphasizing the importance of following the natural flow of the universe rather than resisting or attempting to control it. Ziran encompasses the idea of effortless action, where one aligns oneself with the rhythm of nature, allowing events to unfold naturally without unnecessary interference or exertion. It involves embracing the organic and spontaneous unfolding of life, recognizing that true harmony arises when one lives in accordance with the innate tendencies of the Tao (the underlying principle of the universe). Ultimately, Ziran encourages individuals to let go of attachments, expectations, and the desire for control, and instead surrender to the natural order of things.”

Of course, this is once again a big topic that books can be filled with. I would therefore like to single out a pars pro totum in which the term ziran can be clearly identified. And who better to do that than Bada Shanren, the Daoist painter par excellence.

Ba Da Shan Ren old Fish painting

Many of us, including me at an earlier point in time, think: “Hey, that’s easy, I can do that too.” After all, it’s just a few brush strokes. But if we then pick up the brush and try to copy one of his paintings, we suddenly realize the challenge. Yes, it’s only a few brush strokes, but each one is a masterpiece, and our meager attempts give us a glimpse of just how far Ba Da has come. We certainly felt addressed at first glance by the naturalness, and the unaffected use of brush and ink. If we delve further into this, we will see that the strokes serve multiple functions (see also the article on Zha Shibiao). They also describe, for example, the quality of a fish belly or a tail fin.

Ba Da Shan Ren Fish brushwork

brush strokes and composition

Furthermore the strokes not only describe the external form of the fish, but they are also calligraphically of the highest standard, also indicate space, and describe not only the nature of the fish but also the environment. They are fish IN the water – without Ba Da having to add any waves, water plants, or air bubbles.

But that’s not all. Let’s turn our attention again to the construction of the picture (see also the article composition in Chinese painting).
Let’s look at how power and energy are created through composition, how the QI can flow freely, and even an Ensō is recognizable. And again: the center of the picture is NOTHING, emptiness, the void. Furthermore, at least 80% of the paper is empty. And with that, we have not yet discussed all aspects of the picture, which seems so simple and inspires us with its natural painting style.

Zhu Da Fish composition

my attempts at this subject

I also chose these picture examples, fish by Ba Da, because I’ve been playing around with this topic a lot lately, and the western :: eastern contrast may be attractive.

Neither being Chinese nor a contemporary of Ba Da, there would be little point in trying to copy painters like him in any way. (I posted a long time ago that I can copy Chinese pictures relatively well: Copying Old Masters). But what I want to do is to approach the classic term ziran in a modern, contemporary form and to reflect on it in a painterly way. As I venture further and further into abstract painting, the abstract aspect becomes more challenging. And it seems appealing to me to take up and compare these thoughts of ziran 400 years after Ba Da.
The examples shown below are details from pictures or studies, some larger, most small. Some squint at an external resemblance, but mostly it’s just about reflecting “FISHNESS” [4] in its natural form.

levels of abstraction

The fish shown below, mostly small, come relatively close to realistic fish in shape and color – at least one can tell where the fish’s mouth and where the tail is. In my ongoing Magic Sea project, they would be something like extras. They enliven the picture, suggest the sea, and build a bridge to realism in an otherwise relatively abstract picture.

Dao of Fish paintings details

In step further, the fish gradually lose their shape and are often not recognized as such. Among other things, they serve to emphasize the environment in the water.

abstract Fish paintings details

The two details in the collage below try to describe the YIN, the dark, the mysterious, the mud, and the slime.

colorful abstract Fish paintings details

Expanding on the theme of abstraction, the “fishes” almost completely lose their form. They serve to facilitate the flow of QI. Still, in the whole painting, those strokes are associated with fish.

very abstract Fish paintings details

One step further

Now one can think that in my gimmicks I have moved quite far away from Daoist principles, as we discovered with Ba Da. Not necessarily!

Once again I would like to quote our old Daoist friend Zhuangzi, who, while never writing expressly on painting, his reflections can always be detected in traditional Chinese painting: “There is a beginning; there is no beginning. There is no non-beginning. There is being; there is nonbeing. There is no nonbeing. If there is suddenly a distinction between being and non-being, then I don’t know what is really being and what is really non-being. I’ve just made a finding, but I don’t know if it’s really been made or not.” (Zhuangzi Chapter II)

This statement by Zhuangzi can be applied to the following picture I recently did [5]. Among any number of viewers, some would say, “Yes, that IS a fish. Head, body shape, caudal fin… it’s all there”. Another segment of the viewer would say, “That IS NOT a fish. A cloud at best. What would a fish be doing in the sky….”

Friedrich Zettl Zen Fish painting


Not only Daoism but also Buddhism repeatedly point out that our problems, discontent, and unhappiness come from clinging, Upādāna, (including clinging to forms), and above all from our polarizing, dualistic thinking. [6] IS to be seen as the opposite of IS NOT would again be dualistic thinking. When Zhuangzi speaks of a beginning and at the same time says there is no beginning, he also points to the meta-level behind it: “There is no non-beginning“.

Like any other phenomenon or object in the universe. it doesn’t matter to this “fish” whether it is seen as such or not. He’s just there. Only we, in our separating, evaluating, and excluding, see it as IS or IS NOT. So it IS fish and is NOT fish at the same time. After Daoism, it’s the level beyond, beyond external form, that makes the fish. It is, so to speak, being a fish in itself, the “FISHNESS”. Which is a natural (自然) state independent of shape and other recognizable attributes. These make the object visible and, in the best case, the thought behind it, the principle.


[1] Zhu Da (朱耷), commonly known by his pen name Bada Shanren (八大山人) or just Ba Da, was a late-Ming and early-Qing dynasty Chinese painter, calligrapher, and poet. He was born in Nanchang, Jiangxi, in 1626, at the cusp of a dynastic transition.

[2] like 捏造 niē zào, to make up, to fabricate, affected, often made to please the commoners

[3] Not being completely satisfied with my own definition, I tried ChatGPT: well, it’s better than mine 🙂

[4] The term “fishness” does not exist in our language. “The self-so of fish would be another attempt to describe what remains after we have subtracted all visible and external forms.

[5] The “Fish” was painted in a single breath. From the moment it first touched the surface to when it was finished, the brush tip didn’t leave the paper and no changes were made – although that was very inviting. This is also a detail of work for the Magic Sea project.

[6] Taoism is the concept of non-duality. Dao is one unified whole that originates all the elements of the Universe. Through the lens of Dao antinomy of good-and-evil disappears, since good and evil are relative: they define each other and make no sense without each other.





63 responses to “Bada Shanren Fish – Daoist Talks (IX)”

  1. diespringerin avatar


  2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

    Vielen Dank! 🙏 Schoene Pfingstfeiertage!

  3. Traum(A)Kinder avatar

    Danke! Da wird etwas tief in meinem Inneren berührt.
    Vermutlich können Bilder etwas ausdrücken, was mit Worten nicht geht.
    Das Denken in Gegensätzen widerstrebt mir oft, aber meine Umwelt versteht es nicht.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Danke vielmals! Ja, mit guter Malerei ist es wie mit guter Musik, beide können in uns Türen zu neue Welten öffnen, wenn wir uns darauf einlassen. Mit unserem polarisierenden Denken habe wir schon viel Schaden angerichtet, bei anderen und bei uns selbst.

  4. Mike U. avatar

    While reading this fascinating discourse, I sat shaking my head in wonder and awe at your illustrations. You’re a veritable treasure trove of knowledge, Friedrich, and your generosity in sharing that knowledge is a wonderful thing. It’s incredibly captivating. I’ll be thinking about “fishness” for awhile now, thanks to you! 🙂

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much, Mike for your kind words! Yes, I think if we understand “fishness” we’ll all get along better. The older you get, the easier it is for us not to overestimate scales and caudal fins.

  5. swabby429 avatar

    You artistically present food for contemplation. The fish does not trouble itself with being a fish, nor does a cat worry about being a cat. They simply are. We humans need to be nudged about how to be human.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thanks very much! Obviously, it’s human nature that we can’t just be who we are or give others their freedom. But just being aware of it can make life easier.

      1. swabby429 avatar

        This is our conundrum.

  6. babsje avatar

    Your post is a masterclass in several ways, and I learned so much. Thank you for your generous sharing.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      You are very kind ☺️! Thank you very much 🙏 I just watched your masterclass hawks: gorgeous 🥰

      1. babsje avatar

        You’re welcome and thanks for the kind words. 🙏

  7. julianeus avatar


    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much 🙏😊☀️🍸

  8. rabirius avatar

    I noticed it quite often that things have different meanings for different people. You can notice it quite often between people from different cultures where sometimes even the concept behind a word from one culture doesn’t exist in the other.
    The same exists with people from the same culture as well, as people experience the world around them differently.
    However, if a yoghurt is advertised as tasting natural I wouldn’t really believe it. 🙂

    And, certainly, your fishes look fantastic!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏 Right, different cultures – different jokes 🙂 All is fine as long as we laugh about it.

  9. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

    “Fishness” is glorious!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 😊🙏

      1. The Sicilian Storyteller avatar

        My pleasure, Fred! I wonder if you realize that there seems to be a problem with your site. The last few posting, when I tried to “LIKE” the post, your page just kept loading and the “LIKE” option never appeared. Leaving a comment is no problem; leaving a “LIKE” is impossible. I just wanted you to be aware.

  10. annieasksyou avatar

    Fascinating! Once again you help me peer into areas I could never otherwise access—or even ponder.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Annie! Your kind words make me happy 😊

  11. Dana at Regular Girl Devos avatar

    Beautiful, informative, and thought provoking. Always a pleasure reading your posts, thank you!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      I thank YOU! I am happy you like it! Enjoy a great weekend! 🙂

  12. Emma Cownie avatar

    Fascinating. I was particularly taken with the composition with “nothing” in the centre. I have painted fish, years ago, and was disappointed with the results. I appreciate now that I had neglected their “fishness”. Your fish very the essenence of fishness. I think I will have to read this post several times to truly appreciate what you are writing about.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much for your kind words 🙏 Yes, it seems so easy, doesn’t it?! But it is not even easy to describe what it is that it makes those paintings so meaningful as we have to experience it. And this experience has to be made out of our spectrum we clinch to. Anyway it is a rewarding trip, I think. 🌹🍸🙏

  13. JMN avatar

    Lovely essay, Zettl. Eminently fishy — in a good way, of course! You are painter, scholar, linguist, sinophile, philosopher, mystic and sojourner of the ethereal all in one. Cheers and regards.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much 🙏 I wished that was true but I will try my best to improve 😎 All my best wishes and thanks 🌹🍸

  14. Rosaliene Bacchus avatar

    What a fascinating and enlightening study of your work in progress!

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you so much🌹 It’s probably a never ending road – but there are enough flowers alongside 😊☀️

  15. Ashley avatar

    In your last painting, I could say that I feel like a “fish out of water” because the supposed fish appears to be in the sky, however, in some of the seas there are subterranean pools which look just like your painting, seas below the seas! Then I wonder if you’ve been deep-see diving! A really thoughtful and thought provoking post. Marvellous! 🙋‍♂️

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Ashley 🙏 I tried deep-sea-diving again this March – and did some snorkeling. Now I know that I am an old man 😊 But the little I did was very useful and left a deep impression. Especially since I love to explore new territories. Thanks again 🌼🙏🍸

      1. Ashley avatar

        I imagine that “seeing” under water is very different from “seeing” on land! I doubt if I will ever go deep-SEE-diving! 🤿

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Yes, it’s a different kind of “seeing” but most of all a different kind of overall feeling and perception. And a wonderworld of colours.

      3. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

        Sorry, too late I realized your 🤣 Deep-see doesn’t work well on my small cell-phone 😀

  16. Dominik Alexander avatar

    On your term “fishness” I automatically thought of Platon’s ideas. In German, I would say “Fischheit”, the essence of a fish (has an oval body, swims in water). The idea of the fish is all existing fish concluded into one or reduced to what all the fish have in common. Saying that, I wonder, if Platon’s / Socrates’s ideas do have connections with daoism?

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you! You are absolutely right with Platon. What I find extremely interesting is the fact that Platon and Laozi lived at the same time 😊 I wonder if you are familiar with the German term “Sesselheit” by Husserl. He comes very close to the Daoist concept. But of course Platon, Socrates or Husserl follow Western Philosophy and, as I see it, only deal with parts whereas Laozi or Zhuangzi go much deeper.

      1. Dominik Alexander avatar

        I’ve had a whole semester-long seminar about grey tables (“Tischheit”) and burgunder chair (“Stuhlheit”). I’m not sure, if Husserl was part of it. I think, it was only about ancient philosophy but it would have been interesting to compare European ph. with the Far-Eastern one. Unfortunately, German universities are highly euro-centristic. But, I will take the names you mentioned to do my own research. Thanks for the post, the names and, of course, for all the fish!

  17. Edith avatar

    Lieber Friedrich,starke Kost zu Pfingsten. Neulich sah ich einen Fisch am Himmel,nicht als Wolke,nein, es war ein Ballon in Fischform.
    Die Natur ist und bleibt uns eine großes Rätsel – immer wieder. Wir Menschen bedienen uns gern an ihr, und wenn es nur auch eine Nachbildung eines Fisches ist, das Auge sieht es erst einmal als Fisch. Da kommt kein Gedanke auf, dass der doch ins Wasser gehört, ja gut, es gibt ja auch fliegende Fische, lächel…
    Der Mensch schöpft aus der Natur. Nur gut, dass wir alle mit anderen Augen schöpfen, sonst wäre die Welt nur einseitig belastet..
    Und, egal wie du die Fische malst, sie sind erkennbar als Fische. Da hilft kein Schlamm,kein Schleim, die Fische sind erkennbar. Alles drum herum ist in meinen Augen zweitrangig. Das Detail wird dann umspielt von deinen Farben, welches frei für jegliche Interpretation ist.
    Danke für deinen so tollen Beitrag, der sämtliche Hirnwindungen angeregt hat, zumindest meine… Die Philosophie dahinter geht sooo tief…
    Herzlichst, wie immer,

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Vielen herzlichen Dank! Es freut mich, dass Du mit dem Artikel etwas anfangen kannst. Ja, diese Philosophie geht seeehr tief, in einem Beitrag kann ich immer nur ein, zwei Aspekte anschneiden. Frohe Pfingsten! Ich hoffe, Du kannst die Natur geniessen! LG f

  18. Edith avatar

    Oh ja, unser Grundstück misst 4.500 Quadratmeter, Natur pur, ohne Gifte und dergleichen. Ein Paradies zum Auftanken. Und vielleicht sehe ich heute einen Wolkenfisch, der dann ganz sicher von dir kommt, lächel..

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Wow! Herrlich! Klingt aber auch nach Arbeit 🙂 Fisch ist unterwegs. Bleibt hoffentlich nicht im Pfingstverkehrs-Stau haengen 🙂

      1. Edith avatar

        Er ist daaa, lächel. Ich schicke dir meinen Rosenduft aus dem Garten auf vielen Sonnenstrahlen…

      2. Edith avatar


  19. luisa zambrotta avatar

    I found this post really fascinating and learned a few things that were unfamiliar to me

  20. Cindy Georgakas avatar

    I love your philosophical art lesson and yin yang of these wonderful pieces Fredrick!
    THAKS for the morning lesson!
    “Like any other phenomenon or object in the universe. it doesn’t matter to this “fish” whether it is seen as such or not. He’s just there. Only we, in our separating, evaluating, and excluding, see it as IS or IS NOT. So it IS fish and is NOT fish at the same time. After Daoism, it’s the level beyond, beyond external form, that makes the fish. ‘

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much, Cindy😃 I am happy to hear you understand it the right way 🙏☀️🌹

      1. Cindy Georgakas avatar

        It’s my honor dear friend❣️

  21. Renee Espriu avatar

    I quite enjoyed this Daoist talk and your paintings by way of explanation. People, to my way of thinking, (at least some) see things in terms of black and white, right and wrong and fail to see the inherent gray within, the sameness that seamlessly is within all that is. Like the ‘fish’ we are both and not either/or, one or the other. Hope you are well.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Yes, we too easily fall into black and white thinking. But some of this thinking can be changed, I think. When I was little left-handers were treated like a cow with five legs. Now nobody really cares. I am well, thank you 🙏 I hope you too! ☀️

  22. christinenovalarue avatar
  23. Spira avatar

    The discussion following your in depth presentation/analysis is indicative of the quality of your generous sharing.

    Two things came to mind as I was reading your words:
    First, the equivalent of detachment by Epicurus, ” απλανής θεωρία” (Letter to Menoikea, #128)
    And from Tao Te Ching, that the empty space of the center of a wheel is what makes it useful.

    Finally, may I just say that your use of light in your brush strokes is superb.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! Yes, you are absolutely right. I wrote about this Dao de Jong aspect before. The center of the wheel….

  24. 100 Country Trek avatar

    This was such an amazing Treasures of knowledge .. Thanks .for sharing this.
    Let’s follow our blogs. Anita

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you Anita! I am happy you like it. Yes, let’s follow 🙏☀️🐞

      1. 100 Country Trek avatar

        Can you follow my blog?

      2. Zettl Fine Arts avatar


      3. 100 Country Trek avatar

      4. 100 Country Trek avatar

        It doesn’t show up. Click below
        On the front page on the bottom right side click the follow button.

  25. Bridgey avatar

    Friedrich — thank you for an illuminating, informative and inspiring post. I think your work has not only captured the essence of fish (their fishness) but also I’d venture something of the emotion of fishness; suggesting the joy and feeling of slipping through the waters; the tides of life. I loved this.

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Many many thanks! I’m really happy that you noticed the “joy of the fish”! Actually, I wanted to quote a fairly well-known story by Zhuangzi: “The Joy of the Fishes”. But Then I didn’t want to complicate the post even more.

  26. agndoden avatar

    How great photo: If you are interested in light subject welcome on my blog:

  27. Courtz’ Studio Kreations avatar

    Wow!! Very interesting and informative post! Loved reading this, very reflective piece

    1. Zettl Fine Arts avatar

      Thank you very much! I am glad you like it! 🙂

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