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The Japanese term “KOI” essentially identifies the fish known as carp. In reality the term is generic because it contains all the many ornamental varieties of this fish that we will discover to be much more than a common fish.

We have always seen carp painted in many varieties in parchments, paintings, ceramics and even in children’s kites.

But why is this fish so important in oriental decorative art? What does it represent? What meanings does it contain and what is its history?

In this short article we will try to retrace the main concepts by exploring new aspects and curiosities about this fascinating history of oriental art.

 Koi Carp

WHAT IS KOI CARP?

We said that carp, in Japanese, is called KOI. Originally this fish, now appreciated for its many colors, actually did not have any chromatic variety. Carp’s only real use was as a “cleaner” of stagnant lake waters.

It is historically established that only from the 15th century did the systematic breeding of carp with different colors begin in Japan. It was the peasants of the mountainous areas who first noticed that some carp had backs with different colored spots. From that moment on, long and exhausting crossbreeding processes between carp began to obtain dozens of different varieties also officially recognized.

 Carpe Families

MEANING OF THE CARP

The Carp, in oriental artistic readings, assumes multiple meanings mostly linked to the concepts of perseverance and fidelity. We often find this fish depicted as a “steed” or messenger of the deities, always on the move. A lot of symbology comes from its extreme longevity (carp with an average life of over 40 years have also been estimated) and their enormous strength.

These characteristics also define it as the alter ego of the samurai: courageous, strong and patient. Furthermore, its innate immobility in the most tragic moment has elevated the carp to be the only fish with multiple virtues, just like the samurai.

 Going up the river with the carp

LEGEND AND ANECDUCTS

There is no shortage of stories and legends about carp. The most famous is precisely a carp so courageous and persevering that it would have gone up the entire Yellow River facing a thousand adversities and dangers (including evil spirits). Faced with so much courage, the gods could not help but transform the carp into a shining dragon thus acquiring the gift of immortality.

An anthropological reading of this legend also sees the carp, and its life, as the initiatory path of man who must face everyday life starting from the bottom, from a minimal knowledge of the world. Only with perseverance and constancy, as the Carp did, the human being can reach heights of knowledge and conscience thus becoming a superior being.

 koinobori party

THE CHILDREN’S DAY: “KOINOBORI”

For us Westerners the date is May 5th. The party features hundreds of paper or fabric carp that sway in the wind like kites. On this occasion, each family raises as many carp on the roof of their house as there are male children present. The wish behind this anniversary is to celebrate the best future that every family expects from their heir: perseverance, strength and social success.