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“Qin Gao Riding a Carp” painted by Li Zai, a Ming Dynasty painter, is now in the collection of the Shanghai Museum. It depicts the ancient immortal Qin Gao riding a carp to heaven.

According to Liexian Zhuan, (Biographies of the Immortals), Qin Gao lived in the country of Zhao during the Warring States period (around 475 to 221 BC), and he was known to be a good at playing the Qin —an ancient plucked Chinese seven-string instrument. He was once an official guest of King Kang of the Song. He was renowned for mastering techniques for longevity and travelled around the County of Zhuo in the state of Ji for two centuries.

One day, he decided to enter a river in the County of Zhuo to capture “the son of the dragon”. Before this event he set a date for his disciples to meet him, and requested them to build a temple by the river. “The son of the dragon” referred to red carp, which when found was said to be a way of reaching immortality. Once this red carp was found, it was thought that one was ready to become immortal.

Indeed on that very day, Qin Gao rode a red carp out of the water. He then went to sit in the temple to receive more than ten thousand people who came to see him each day. After a month, he again rode the red carp, and disappeared into the river, leaving as an immortal being.

In Qin Gao Riding a Carp, Qin Gao sits on the carp whilst looking back and bidding farewell to his disciples. With swirling winds, choppy waves, permeating mists and clouds, the painter has portrayed this wonderful scene of Qin Gao becoming an immortal.

According to another story recorded in Jingxian zhi Record of County Jing, Qin Gao practiced Daoist cultivation in the mountains twenty miles north of County Jing. After obtaining immortality, he ascended to heaven on a red carp. The mountain was therefore named Mount Qin Gao, and the creek Qin Creek. Every year around the time of Qingming (Tomb Sweeping Festival), small fish would jump out of the water in the creek. These fish are named Qin Gao fish.

About The painter, Li Zai hailed from Putian of Fujian province, living until 1431. As a Ming Dynasty painter, he was summoned to the royal palace to paint with Dai Jin, another Ming Dynasty painter. Li Zai was particularly good at landscape and portrait painting. The famous Japanese painter, Xuezhou, once exchanged painting tips with him.