A lesson on Goldfish, Koi and Carp

Do you know the significance of painting a carp or a goldfish? Why does Japanese celebrate Children’s Day on the 5th of May with the flying of these koinobori, which are carp-shaped streamers? Why do we usually draw 5 fishes and write 五福临门?

Last Saturday saw a new student joining my Sat Chinese ink class. Some were travelling, some were sick and some just decided to switch to Thurs class as it was a more convenient timing for them.

So it was just two of them.

The one who introduced this new student, was happy that her friend was getting more attention than usual. I showed them the basics of drawing a goldfish and shared a little story about how the goldfish came from Carp family. The beautiful Koi was the Japanese version of Carp.

Ever wonder how goldfish came to be goldfish?

“In 1162, the empress of the Song Dynasty ordered the construction of a pond to collect the red and gold variety. By this time, people outside the imperial family were forbidden to keep goldfish of the gold (yellow) variety, yellow being the imperial colour.

During the 1620s, goldfish were highly regarded in southern Europe because of their metallic scales, and symbolised good luck and fortune. It became tradition for married men to give their wives a goldfish on their first anniversary, as a symbol for the prosperous years to come.” – source wikipedia

The hardest part to draw for goldfish is the tail fins as they are thin and flowing. The transparency and fluidity of the tail fins need to be felt when the painting is done.

One of my student, an engineer by training, told me that the goldfish is not an “efficient” fish as it is more like a tank than a typical fish which has a streamlined body to cut through the water!

It was a powerful observation and tells me that sometimes human intervention can change the course of history….the plain Prussian carp was changed to what is considered beautiful in the eyes of man:)

Nevertheless, the goldfish represents “abundance” as 金鱼 is seen as an auspicious symbol and the phrase “五福临门” represents five blessings that have arrived to your home. The five blessings are “longevity, wealth, health, virtue, and a natural death”。“寿、富、康宁、修好德、寿终命”。较通俗的解释是:“寿”指年高寿长;“富”指家中钱物丰富;“康宁”指身无病痛;“修好德”指心存美德;“寿终命”指善终,即得以终寿,不因意外之祸早夭。(Source: http://wenwen.sogou.com/z/q119343402.htm and http://approachinese.com/dict/zh2en/%E4%BA%94%E7%A6%8F%E4%B8%B4%E9%97%A8/)

Legend has it that the carp is able to swim against all odds and reach the pearly gates where they would turn into dragons.

In Japan, the carp is considered as “the most spirited fish — so full of energy and power that it can fight its way up swift-running streams and cascades. Because of its strength and determination to overcome all obstacles, it stands for courage and the ability to attain high goals.” – wikipedia

There is a special day to celebrate this spirit amongst children in Japan. Koinobori (鯉幟) is a festival where the kites symbolising carp are flown high.

Pen and watercolor done by Pin Lay
Screen Shot 2016-05-30 at 1.57.02 PM
The beautiful Carp socks ..flying high in the sky against Mount Fuji
Two black goldfishes done by Pin Lay using Chinese ink and rice paper


Carps and fishes

Reference Sites and for further reading:

  1. Japanese Kite Festival  (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Koinobori)
  2. Your Koi pond (Source: http://yourkoipond.com/difference-koi-carp-goldfish/)
  3. Japanese Kite History http://www.kiteman.co.uk/JAPANESE%20HISTORY4.html

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