Fish in Chinese mythology
Fish are an important motif in Chinese mythology. There are various myths involving fish. The word for "fish", yu, is a homophone for "abundance" and "affluence".(Eberhard, 1983: 106). Chinese mythology refers to those myths found in the historical geographic area of China. The geographic area of "China" is of course a concept which has evolved of changed through history. Fish in Chinese mythology include myths in Chinese and other languages, as transmitted by Han Chinese as well as other ethnic groups (of which fifty-six are officially recognized by the current administration of China).(Yang 2005:4) The Chinese dragon is the head of the fish clan.
The Chinese character for fish: traditional Chinese: 魚; simplified Chinese: 鱼; pinyin: yú. Pronounced with a different tone in modern Chinese, 裕 (yù) means "abundance". Alternatively, 餘, meaning "over, more than", is a true homophone, so the common Chinese New Year greeting appears as 年年有魚 or 年年有餘. Due to the homophony, "fish" mythically becomes equated with "abundance".
The character for fish (魚) evolved from an ancient pictograph. It is the traditional 195th (out of 216) traditional radical. Over time, the pictographic representations tended to become increasingly stylized, until evolving to the modern standard form:
|Great seal script|
Carp (traditional Chinese: 鯉; simplified Chinese: 鲤; pinyin: lǐ) can be transformations of dragons or carp can sometimes change into dragons. According to tradition, a carp that could swim upstream and then leap the falls of the Yellow River at the Dragon Gate (Longmen) would be transformed into a dragon: this motif symbolizes success in the civil service examinations(Eberhard, 1983:57-58). This is the Dragon Gate at the border of Shanxi and Shaanxi where the Yellow River flows through a cleft in the Longmen mountains, supposedly made by Yu the Great, who cut through the mountain. According to one account, all the carp competed at a yearly competition to leap the Longmen falls; those who succeeded were immediately transformed into dragons and flew off into the sky (Christie, 1968: 65 and 74). Pictures of carp attempting to leap the Longmen falls have been enduringly popular in China. There are other Dragon Gates (Longmen) in the rivers of China, typically with steep narrows, and the mythological geography does not depend upon an actual location. The "flying carp" or "silver carp" (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) is native to China and other parts of Asia. It is a great jumper. Silver carp are strong swimmers and researchers have observed them to jump 1.81-2.24 meters (approximately 5.94 to 7.75 feet) above the surface of the water with an angle of leap of 44-70º (Parsons et al 2016). They are quite capable of swimming upstream and leaping over barriers in the water.
Related to fish, some Chinese mythological motifs involve fishermen or fish baskets or a fish trap.
According to Chinese myth, the culture hero Fuxi invented fishing after the Great Flood (Eberhard, 1983:107). A story tells that first Fuxi fished with his hands, but after observing a spider catching insects in its web, he invented the rattan net and used it to catch fish, which skill he passed on to his descendants (Yang, 2005: 120).
Jiang Ziya, the great general and strategist and military mastermind who was key to establishing the Zhou Dynasty, was said to have spent years in his old age fishing, but with a straight hook, or no bait, or with his hook dangling above the water: but, he was fishing for a Lord, not a fish. After Jiang Ziya became the general, he was known as "Taigong" or "the Grand Duke". The degree to which this qualifies as a myth is open to question, but it is certainly a well-known motif.
According to Chinese myth, Fuxi also invented the fish basket, or trap, by weaving bamboo into a cage which had a funnel opening, that was easy for the fish to enter because the big opening was on the outside, but inside it tapered to narrow and exit opening, so it was easy for the fish to get in, but hard to get out. (Eberhard, 1983:108). In other cases the fish basket served more as a net, in which a fish could be scooped from the water and transported to the market. In one manifestation, Guanyin is pictured as holding a fish basket. This imagery is sometimes considered to have a sexual connotation.
- Christie, Anthony (1968). Chinese Mythology. Feltham: Hamlyn Publishing. ISBN 0600006379.
- Eberhard, Wolfram (2003 [1986 (German version 1983)]), A Dictionary of Chinese Symbols: Hidden Symbols in Chinese Life and Thought. London, New York: Routledge. ISBN 0-415-00228-1
- Parsons, Glenn & Stell, Ehlana & Hoover, Jan. (2016). Estimating Burst Swim Speeds and Jumping Characteristics of Silver Carp (Hypophthalmichthys molitrix) Using Video Analyses and Principles of Projectile Physics. ERDC/TN ANSRP-16-2. Retrieved 29 October 2018.
- Yang, Lihui, et al. (2005). Handbook of Chinese Mythology. New York: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-533263-6