A Deeper Meaning Behind a Seemingly Simple Creature
1800s depicting a Japanese carp.
To many western onlookers, the Japanese koi might appear to be a simple fish with a humble purpose, and the topic of koi symbolism might seem surprising. However, in Japanese and other Asian cultures, the koi fish is a celebrated creature, embodying many noble qualities and ideals.
Koi Fish Symbolism - Origin of Koi
The word 'koi' was originally used in Japan to describe wild varieties of the common carp fish. It is believed that the common carp was brought from Eurasia to China and Korea approximately 2000 years ago, primarily as a source of food. Carp are a very hardy species and can withstand long travel, which made them ideal candidates for transportation to far off lands. Around 1000 years ago, the carp made it's way into Japan via China. The word 'koi' is simply the Japanese word for 'carp', and is generally used in Japan to describe all carp; wild or captive. Keeping koi was most popular with Japanese farmers who kept koi in the ponds above their paddy fields as a source of food.
Emergence of Colored Koi
Any animal kept in a closed breeding area for an extended period of time will eventually begin to exhibit mutations. There is evidence that around 1840, after centuries of keeping koi in captivity, the Japanese farmers began to notice subtle color changes in certain fish. Out of personal interest, these new colored varieties were bred further and kept as a hobby rather than as the traditional food source. These new 'colored' koi were given the name Nishikigoi, with 'koi' still being used to describe all carp varieties.
Koi up to Present Day
In the early 1900s, keeping koi as a hobby exploded in Japan, and as a result, was introduced to the rest of the world. However, it is widely recognized that the best koi are still bred in Japan, with many koi hobbyists traveling great distances to purchase and acquire authentic Japanese koi. Interestingly enough, in Japan the word 'koi' is still used as a general term to describe all carp, while the rest of the world uses the word 'koi' to refer to what the Japanese call Nishikigoi, or the special colored variety of Japanese carp.
The hobby of keeping Koi in Japan has enjoyed high popularity until present day, where there are now 13 colors, each with numerous varieties, officially recognized for Nishikigoi in Japan.
What do Koi Fish Symbolize?
When considering a topic as historically rich as koi symbolism, one must look at the legends and myths surrounding the koi fish to discover it's true meaning within the context of Japanese and Chinese culture.
Dragon's Gate on Yellow River
According to Chinese legend, there was a place called Dragon's Gate at the top of a large waterfall on Yellow River. Carp would swim up the river, against the current to reach the base of the waterfall. Although many would try, only a few were brave and able enough to attempt the final leap up the waterfall. It was said that if a carp was able to complete the journey through Dragon's Gate at the top of the falls, then it would be transformed into a powerful dragon. In Chinese culture, the dragon is a symbol of great power. The story symbolizes that anybody who is able to persevere through great trials can accomplish their highest goals to become great.
Koi as a Samurai Warrior
Koi Symbolism is also very prevalent in Japanese culture. It is said that a Koi swims up rivers and climbs waterfalls with bravery not unlike a Samurai warrior. As well, it is said that if a Koi is caught, it will lie still beneath the knife, facing its death bravely like a Samurai facing a sword.
Koi fish symbolism has gained strength over the centuries to encompass numerous positive qualities related to courage, overcoming adversity, the ability to attain the highest goals, and strong character.
Because of the many admirable qualities and rich koi symbolism in Japanese and Chinese cultures, koi fish along with flowing water have become popular tattoo designs around the world as people draw reference from these amazing fish into their own lives.