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Chinese and Japanese Koi Art

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"Two Carp" fan painting by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).

"Two Carp" fan painting by Japanese artist Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).


Some of the most famous and recognizable Chinese and Japanese artwork is that of the carp. Most Asian art enthusiasts are familiar with carp paintings and ukiyo-e woodblock prints, as well as the artwork it has inspired around the world. And most people have seen the famous nishikigoi (錦鯉), or koi fish in many kinds of pictures and art! But are you familiar with the history behind this artwork? Do you know the significance of the carp to the Chinese and Japanese people? If not, please read on and learn more!

NOTE: The word 'koi' is used in the West to describe the variety of carp the Japanese call 'nishikigoi'. In Japan, the word 'koi' means 'carp' in general and is used for all the different species of carp, particularly wild carp. In this article, I'll use the term 'koi' to describe the koi fish and art pertaining to it and carp for everything else under the sun.


Info about the Asian Carp

A carp is a type of freshwater fish that can be found in most areas of the world (except the Middle East, the poles, and eastern Europe). There are a number of carp species around the world, and there are both wild and domesticated versions of nearly every species.

The common carp seen in the Chinese and Japanese paintings is believed to have originated in China and was brought to Japan at some point. There are a number of carp species and subspecies, and many of these can be found in both China and Japan.

The nishikigoi carp, which is what most Westerners call 'koi' or 'koi fish', is an ornamental variety of domesticated carp which was first bred in Ojiya, Niigata Prefecture, Japan, in the 1820s. There are now many varieties of koi which have been exported and bred around the world.

"Carp" (1884) by Chinese artist Qi Baishi.

"Carp" (1884) by Chinese artist Qi Baishi.

Chinese Carp Art

China is the ancestral home of carp art, and where koi and traditional Japanese carp art (especially the early paintings) draws much of its inspiration. To the Chinese people, the carp is a symbol of perseverance, strength, and endurance. In many Chinese folktales, the carp is considered an incarnation of the dragon that brings happiness and wealth to those whose path it crosses.

Also, with its long whiskers and scales, the carp is said to physically resemble a dragon. In fact, one of the most popular Chinese carp motifs is a carp(s) swimming toward a waterfall and transforming into a dragon. This motif is based on an ancient Chinese legend about carp who swim upstream in the Yellow River toward the mythical Dragon's Gate at the top of a giant legendary mountain. Those few carp who swim up the waterfall and through the gate are changed into dragons. To this day there exists a saying in China: "lǐ​ yú​ tiào​ lóng ​mén" ("鲤鱼跳龙门"), or "The carp has leaped through the dragon's gate." This saying is often used for students who pass their university exams, or people in general who work hard at a task and succeed beyond their wildest expectations.

Some other common carp motifs in Chinese art include yin yang carp (with a black and red carp forming the two sides of the yin yang symbol), carp swimming among lotus flowers (a sacred Buddhist symbol that represents mental harmony), and a group of nine carp (with nine being considered a lucky number by the Chinese) swimming together.

The carp can be found in many kinds of Chinese artwork, including scroll paintings, ink paintings, ceramics, and more.

"Carp leaping up a cascade" by Katsushika Hokusai. Notice the incredible detail in this painting, including the droplets of water splashing around!

"Carp leaping up a cascade" by Katsushika Hokusai. Notice the incredible detail in this painting, including the droplets of water splashing around!

Japanese Koi Art

Japan is the one country from where koi art has spread around the world. Paintings and pictures of carp - in particular the koi carp - have been made by artists and photographers in Japan and around the world.

In Japan, the carp represents good luck and good fortune. Also, the word 'koi' (鯉) is pronounced the same as another word ('恋') meaning love and affection. The Chinese legend of the Dragon's Gate is also well-known in Japan and the same motif of carp swimming up a waterfall is also common in Japan. This motif can be found in a number of the famous ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

In addition to the carp swimming upstream, a carp swimming downstream can also be found in Japanese art. This carp is said to have achieved its life goals while the one swimming upstream and toward the Dragon's Gate is still trying to make its dream come true.

Carp paintings made before the advent of ukiyo-e in the Edo period typically showed a carp swimming in its natural environment in full color. Many of these paintings were no doubt inspired by the Chinese carp paintings.

When ukiyo-e became popular, the carp became a popular subject for the artists to depict in their prints. Many of the ukiyo-e masters such as Katsushika Hokusai, Utagawa Kuniyoshi, and Kitao Masayoshi depicted the carp in its gracefulness and glory.

Many Japanese carp paintings also have a strong Buddhist connotation. Some carp swimming in the ocean are symbolic of people swimming through the "ocean of suffering" just as a fish swims in the sea. Others reflect the Zen quality of finding peace in the moment by observing the carp.

"Oniwakamaru preparing to kill a giant carp" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).

"Oniwakamaru preparing to kill a giant carp" by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1797-1861).

The Carp in Japanese Mythology

The carp has appeared in a number of Japanese folktales and legends, and some of these legends have been depicted in painting.

Two ancient Japanese legends about carp that were depicted in ukiyo-e are the stories of the "golden boy" Kintarō wrestling the giant carp and Oniwakamaru (the future Musashibo Benkei) finding and killing at Bishimon Waterfall the giant carp that ate his mother. Both were depicted by ukiyo-e artists such as Utagawa Kuniyoshi and Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.

A gyotaku print made by artists Theocharis Athanasakis and Sachiko Kitagawa using a rubber fish.

A gyotaku print made by artists Theocharis Athanasakis and Sachiko Kitagawa using a rubber fish.

Gyotaku Fish Prints

One of the most unique forms of art to come out of Japan is the gyotaku fish print.

Gyotaku is a form of art where a live fish is rubbed in ink and stamped on paper to make an art print. It is one that has spread beyond Japan and across the world.

Gyotaku was created by Japanese fishermen during the 1800s as a way to record their catches and display them for the world to see. After a while, regular people and artists began to catch on to this art form and it became hugely popular.

Carp are traditionally one of the most popular species of fish used for this form of art, but rubber fish are becoming more and more popular nowadays. The movements of the fish captured on paper are what makes this art form so unique.

Koi swimming in a pond at Japanese Garden, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, USA. Pictures such as this have become very popular all over the world.

Koi swimming in a pond at Japanese Garden, Washington Park Arboretum, Seattle, Washington, USA. Pictures such as this have become very popular all over the world.

Modern-Day Koi Art

The popularity of koi art has exploded across the world in recent decades. The orange and white koi that most Westerners know has been depicted in pictures, paintings, posters, computer screensavers, mousepads, and more. Many of the designs of the koi paintings are based on the ancient Chinese and Japanese carp paintings, and others have been created using modern-day technology such as computer vector graphics and digital photography.

Koi paintings and pictures are also very popular feng shui décor, and all-around nice pictures to look at! Since the koi is a very beautiful, relaxing fish to look at and has much symbolism attached to it, it's only natural that it would be perfect for a feng shui-oriented home environment or just someone who wants a good picture to help them relax.

In China and Japan, koi fish and koi art are just as common and popular as in the West nowadays, but there are still artists who paint carp paintings (both regular and koi carp paintings) in the classical way. Handpainted carp scroll paintings, wall paintings, fans, and more can be bought from many art dealers and at many souvenir shops.

Koi Tattoos

In addition to art, koi (and regular carp) tattoo designs have become popular all around the world. Many people get very elaborate and beautiful koi tattoo designs that have all the traditional attributes of the carp, as well as personal meaning for the person being tattooed.

Some of the traditional designs of koi swimming amidst lotuses, bleeding koi, koi swimming in water, and koi swimming upstream or up a waterfall are some of the designs many people have chosen for their koi tattoo.

Thanks For Stopping By!

The carp is a fish that has been a symbol of strength, endurance, and good luck to the Chinese and Japanese people for many centuries and this - along with its eye-catching beauty - has been depicted in many types of artwork over the centuries. The carp has not lost its significance over the years and will most likely become more and more popular as people around the world discover the carp...and the inspiration it gives to so many people.

Thank you for your visit and be sure to come back soon as I plan to update this article when time permits. If you have any questions or comments, feel free to leave them in the comment box below!


danielabram on August 06, 2012:

How do they draw the koi if they always see them from the top down?

truefaith7 (author) from USA on February 08, 2012:

No problem!

eneva on February 08, 2012:

Thanks, very informative!