Koi fish have particularly strong symbolic meaning in Japanese and Chinese cultures. Some key symbolic meanings include:
- Wealth and Abundance
Commonly used in pest control on golf courses to keep insects and larvae at bay, the koi’s resonance is more than a handy way to make the greens a nicer place. They’re also often placed in garden streams for their symbolic resonance.
Koi Fish Symbolism: Color Meanings
Perhaps the best place to begin discussing the meaning of Koi is with their most synonymous feature; color. Along with scaling and patterning, rich color is what breeders strive for. Major ones include red, blue, cream, yellow, black, white and orange.
Here’s what each (and combinations of each) can mean:
- Career success: symbolized by a white body and red spots (Kohaku).
- True love: symbolized by a yellow, red or white koi with black markings (Bekko). Translates as “tortoise shell” in Japanese.
- Business success: symbolized by a solid platinum (silver) colored koi (Ogon).
- Riches: symbolized by a bright gold body (Yamabuki).
- Autumn: symbolized by a brown and grey color. More specifically meaning “fallen leaves” or “autumn leaves fallen on water” (Ochiba Shigura).
- Life changes: symbolized by a white body and black spots. Also by a black bodied koi (Kumonryu).
- Long lasting relationships: symbolized by the red and white “lipstick” colored fish. So called thanks to the red coloring surrounding its mouth (Kuchibeni).
General Symbolism of Koi
Some of the meanings, myths and symbolism that surround koi come from their associations with varying personality traits. Here are some of the more common ones:
Koi are well renowned as being an adaptable species capable of thriving in varied bodies of freshwater. They are also familiar for being able to swim up streams and waterfalls too. Both help give them the aura of being a resilient and tenacious species.
Life in ornamental ponds might look easy but there’s many threats to fend off. From incoming herons to other predatory wildlife, koi face their dangers head on. You’ll often find them resorting to shallower depths to harden the fight.
3. Wealth and Abundance
The bright colors of koi and the role they play at the center of century-long breeding programs make them an iconic fish. A favorite with emperors, state officials and the underworld mafia, they are often seen as a sign of opulence and desire. That’s also why they stand pride of place in many of the world’s most beautiful gardens.
The products of extensive breeding programs where the less colorful are routinely culled (or used as feeder fish), the koi that do make it through are unique. Look in any aquarium, pond or place koi are routinely kept and it’s hard to spot any two the same. They are nonconformist by circumstance.
The positive energy that the icon of the koi draws, specifically across Asian cultures, is thought to bring good luck to whoever it touches. Perhaps that’s what the ancient philosopher Confucius hoped for when accepting the gift of a black koi upon the birth of his son. The boy even took koi (or the Chinese translation) as his name.
Koi Symbolism in Japan
Historically koi are thought to have been introduced to Japan from China. The word itself even comes from the common pronunciation of the character used for carp in both countries’ languages.
Since the days of the 19th century koi breeding program set up in Niigata, the fish’ significance in Japanese culture has grown considerably.
1. Koi Tattoo
Perhaps one of the more familiar sights of the fish, at least out of water, are in tattoos. Born from Yakuza (Japanese mafia) traditions, the image of the fish in ink is said to signify courage and the ability to attain high goals. Both things that also highlight strength.
In terms of positioning, koi also have separate meanings too. A tattoo of the fish swimming upward on the body is said to show someone overcoming hardship in life. A koi facing down, on the other hand, is thought to show an individual having overcome that hardship and beaten the odds.
Either way, it’s a symbol that represents elevated status.
The individual colors of koi in tattoos also have separate meanings. Blue ones are thought to represent masculinity and reproduction – as well as peace, tranquility and calmness. Although it’s rare to find blue variations in the wild.
Another strong association khoi have in Japanese heritage is with that of the samurai. Likened to the warriors in the way they courageously wait for the sword, khoi are said to be unflinching when carved up on a chopping board.
3. Annual Children’s Day
The Japanese National Holiday on May 5th, Children’s Day, is one that unites all members of the family in a day of celebration. Featuring as the prominent symbol on flags waved during the festivities are khoi.
Black khoi represents the father. Red and orange the mother. Blue and white the son. Red and pink the daughter. The symbols are erected outside homes or in gardens.
4. Japanese Art
Khoi appear in various Japanese paintings and as ornaments or trinkets kept in the home. Stylistically, much is made of the barbels adjacent to the lips. One key feature that separates them from goldfish.
Seen as a divine fish, much of these works have almost sacred reverence.
Koi Symbolism in China
In ancient China to call someone a khoi was a complement reserved for someone passing imperial exams. Since then its meaning is still positive.
1. Dragon Gateway
Probably the biggest symbol the fish stands for in present day China is transformation. But this is actually linked to the old folktale of the Dragon Gateway, a ten thousand meter high gate. A khoi making the leap over this gateway was said to turn into a dragon. Something very powerful according to Chinese folklore.
Probably another reason why the khoi appears so frequently as a figure in traditional Chinese ink and wash painting too.
Symbolism in Buddhism, Feng Shui and Taoism
Just as humans are said to have to withstand the dangerous waters of suffering, khoi are likened to humans in their voyage to swim upriver. Their symbolism in Buddhism is one of perseverance.
1. Yin and Yang
The black and white parts of the yin and yang symbol are another religious totem similar in shape to two coiled koi. The watchful eye of the symbol is said to be that of the fish itself.
2. Feng Shui
Keeping the image of koi carp in the home, whether in a pond or a painting, is thought to bring prosperity and happiness to a home.
Koi, through many areas of art and culture, have a very positive image. Thought to bring happiness, wealth, luck and prosperity, it’s difficult to see why anyone wouldn’t want them as a possible symbol in their lives.
Although a descendent of the carp family, the koi has several differences in comparison to the goldfish. A little larger, more varied in appearance and certainly more expensive in price, koi fish symbolism is different too.
I’m a Scorpio, I love the outdoors, and I’ve written articles in some major online publications like Medium and The Weekly. My favorite metaphor? Anything that’s got to do with baseball. I’m fascinated by the fact our language has baseball weaved all through it. Read more about me here.