Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Fishing For The Moon In The Water

Posted by Elyse Bruce on July 21, 2016

If someone tells you that your idea is nothing more than fishing for the moon in the water, they mean that you aren’t seeing things as they are, and your idea is a pipe dream.  It may sound nice and it might even look nice, but it’s not realistic in their opinion.

From June 16 to July 29, 2011 the James Cohan Art Gallery in New York City hosted an art show curated by Leo Xu, a curator and writer based in Shanghai, China.  The art show was titled, “Catch The Moon In The Water.”  The show featured artists such as Shanghai-based Zhou Tiehai; Beijing-based Guo Hongwei, Zhao Zhao, Chen Wei, Hu Xiangqian, Sun Xun and Liang Yuanwei; and Hangzhou-based Cheng Ran.

The press release stated that the title of the art show came from a poem by Chinese artist, calligrapher, scholar, government official, and poet Huang Tingjian (1045 – 1105) who lived during the Song Dynasty, and is considered one of the Four Masters of the Song Dynasty.   included this line:

Seize the flower in the mirror,
Catch the moon in the water.

IMPORTANT NOTE 1:  The Song Dynasty began in 960 A.D. through to 1279 A.D.  It was preceded by the Tang Dynasty, and was followed by the Yuan Dynasty.

In Oliver Stone’s movie “W” there’s a scene where George Bush Sr. and George Bush Jr. discuss what George wants to do with his life.

GEORGE BUSH SR
Who do you think you are?  A Kennedy?  You’re a Bush.  Act like one.  You can’t even hold a job.  We always worked for our living.  It’s damned time you joined the rest of us and decided just what it is you’re gonna do with your life.

GEORGE BUSH JR  
I know, Poppy. I’m — I’m — I’m just having
a devil of a time trying to figure it out.

GEORGE BUSH SR  
Well, then figure it out soon, Junior.  Your brother Jeb graduates Phi Beta Kappa.  What did you get? Cs?  You only get one bite at the apple, you know.

GEORGE BUSH JR  
Jeb’s not me and I don’t wanna be Jeb, Poppy.  Look, what I’d really love —  I mean, what I’d really love to do is to find something in baseball.

GEORGE BUSH SR  
What? You can’t play.  Coach? You’re fishing for the moon in the water.

The movie was released in 2008 and the script was written by Stanley Weiser, but four biographers who have written about the Bush family said that while the screenplay was based in fact, there was more caricature than three-dimensional character in the main roles.  That being said, the movie provided an opportunity to talk about fishing for the moon in the water.

The question, however, is whether this idiom was one that would have been known by George Bush Sr. at the time it was inserted into the movie’s timeline.   According to the United States Foreign Broadcast Information Service, in the February 7, 1987 edition of the “Daily Report: People’s Republic of China,” an article was published with the idiom as its title.  It was listed thusly:

HK090605 Beijing RENMIN RIBAO in Chinese 7 Feb 87 p 6

[“International Jottings” by Yue Lin (2588 7207):  “Fishing For The Moon In The Water“]

While there aren’t many published references to this idiom in English, it’s a very well known saying in China.  Just as the Western world has Aesop’s fables, China has its own fables as well including this one.

One evening, a man went to the well to fetch water.  Looking into the well, he saw the moon shining back at him.

Alarmed, the man said, “I must hurry back home for my fishing rod, and fish the moon out of the well.”

Once he returned to the well, he lowered the hook in and waited for the moon to bite.  He waited and waited and waited until something tugged at the line.

The man pulled hard, but the moon pulled even harder until suddenly the line broke and the man fell flat on his back.

When he sat back up, he saw the moon was back in the sky as it should be and he was proud of his hard work.

The next day when he met his friends in the village, he proudly told them of his achievement the previous night, and not one person in the village dared tell him that the moon had always been in the sky and had never been in the well.

The fable was first recorded by Dao Shi (618 – 683) in his book, “Fa Yuan Zhu Lin (The Dharma Treasure Grove).”

6 Responses to “Fishing For The Moon In The Water”

  1. Philip Hudson said

    This reminds me of the nursery rhymes about the moon. My favorite is “Baby’s Boat’s the silver moon” Then there is Eugene Fields’ “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod”. and the little prayer, “I see the moon. The moon sees me. God bless the moon, God bless me.”

    • I haven’t heard of “Baby’s boat’s the silver moon” before now so I’ll look that up as it sounds charming, Philip. I also love the prayer, and of course, “Wynken, Blynken, and Nod.” What I like about poems, nursery rhymes, songs, et al that include the moon is that it always carries with it a gentleness that’s not always intrinsic to other inanimate objects. 🙂

      • Philip Hudson said

        The moon plays a prominent role in much of poetry, fiction, folk music and of, course, astronauts. My mother sang to her children non-stop. I never knew anyone to sing so much and who knew so many songs. She sang a song that has the phrase “The moon is shining on the sand.” I know all the words to it and the tune. But I have never have heard it anywhere else and can’t find it on Youtube. It begins as, “Started out from Texas about a year ago, started out to make myself a name.” Does anyone know this song?

      • I believe the song you mean was recorded by the Carter Family and titled, “Going Back To Texas.”

        LYRICS:

        Started out from Texas about a year ago
        Started out to make myself a name
        Going back to Texas for my heart is sad and sore
        My weary feet are getting mighty lame.

        Going back to my good old Texas home, home, home
        Down by the sleepy Rio Grande
        Where the lonesome turtledove is grieving
        And the moon is shining on the sand.

        Going back where the longhorn cattle roam, roam, roam
        Where your best friend is your bronco and your gun
        And I know I’ll never more be leaving
        Texas home, my rambling days are done.

        Give me back my saddle, give me back my gun
        Give me back that good old bronc of mine
        Give me back the campfires when the day is gone
        Let me hear a lonesome coyote whine.

        The song is on Volume III of “On Border Radio” recorded in 1939, and is available on Amazon.

        On The Border, Volume III

      • Philip Hudson said

        That’s it. There is at least one more verse. I should have known my mother learned it from listening to the Carter family. They are truly an American music legend.

      • The Carter Family certainly placed their stamp on American music. People aren’t always aware that some of their favorite music was first recorded by the Carter Family. 🙂

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