Carps and carp products are in use for medical purpose in many countries across the Indian ocean. Stories about this animal were gathered and written by students. They are all part of a pedagogical project, funded by the National University of Singapore and the Université de Paris. The Bestiary site is a work-in-progress and a participatory educational tool, representing animals whose products or body parts are used to promote health and healing.

The Carp

A Story by Ong Ghim Hwee Claire

The carp, a symbol of strength and perseverance, is the most popular fish motif in Chinese culture. In the distant mythological past, water of the blue river from the sky and yellow river from the land were separated by the Dragon Gate. The yellow river was the edge of freedom for the inhabitants of the sea. The carp or koi, the most beautiful of its inhabitants, glistened in the sun like stars on a dark night. A tiny carp who had heard of a time without barriers between the places, yearned to jump over the Dragon Gate to swim in the waters of the blue river. The carp swam upstream in the dark waters, against many hurdles and turbulent waves to reach the wall of the Dragon Gate. It persisted, summoned all its strength to make a giant leap over the waterfall, and emerged as a beautiful dragon fish in the blue river on the other side of the gate. Images of a carp jumping over the gate are used to encourage Chinese children to succeed through hard work and perseverance. The carp’s jumping feature is even set in a proverbial idiom known as “Liyu (Carp) jumps over the Dragon Gate” an idiom that conveys a vivid image symbolising a sudden uplifting in one’s social status, where one ascends into upper society through marriage or other reasons such as success in the imperial examination. 

The carp is hence one of the most meaningful animals in Chinese culture. The carp also represents wealth and abundance, as the Chinese character for fish (鱼) has the same sounds as the word for abundance (餘). The Chinese Pisces or koi fish pair has been a feature of Chinese style paintings for thousands of years. As they swim in pairs, they symbolise harmony, marital happiness and reproduction; the last dish eaten at wedding banquets, especially in north China, is a large carp. In ancient times, the harsh natural environment forced human beings to pay special attention to their own kind, which led to the worship of reproduction to continue the family name. As the most reproductive creature, fishes became a metaphor for reproduction.

The scales and whiskers of the carp resembles a dragon, which is a great symbol of power in China. In the past, people believed that Carps can transform into dragons. In 2018, we can see how people believe the carp symbolises not just abundance and good luck but also power after one lady became the ‘national koi’ (koi is a kind of carp) after winning an online lottery. Her social media post was reposted 800,000 times by those who hoped to borrow some of her good luck. ‘Reposting koi’, of social media users sharing koi images, became a nation-wide trend, where one of the posts, a tweet saying “follow and repost this koi picture, something good will happen within one month” was reposted 9 million times. There were about millions of koi-related tweets then in hopes of attaining wealth and better health. To the Chinese, the carp is a powerful symbol of strength and perseverance. 


Value in Asian Medicine

Carp is usually consumed by steaming it, and is used to induce diuresis to help with urinary tract infections as well as reduce swelling in the body. However, in Chinese Medicine, it is stir-baked in charcoal and then pounded into powder before it is spread on the affected area. The carp is also believed to have an invigorating effect on the spleen and stomach, promoting the qi, clearing the breast and preventing miscarriage. It is commonly used for stomach pain, diarrhoea, jaundice, athlete’s foot cough, petal movement, pregnancy, and sparse milk after delivery.

The pleasures of fishes, Zhou Dongqing (active late 13th century), 1291, China. The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Leaping Carp, Forgery of Xu Wei 徐渭 (1521-1593), Qing dynasty to Modern period, 1800-1920, China, Arthur M. Sackler Gallery