The Fish Symbol in Traditional Chinese Culture
As discussed in more detail in
hidden meaning of Chinese
charm symbols and open work charms,
the fish is one of the oldest of the traditional animal
symbols in China.
the Chinese character for fish (yu 鱼) is pronounced the same as the Chinese
character for surplus
the fish symbol is frequently used to symbolize the wish
for more in the sense of good luck, good fortune, long life,
And, the Chinese particularly like to fashion charms using the
carp fish as the model because the Chinese character for carp
(li 鲤) is pronounced
the same as the character (li
利) for "profit".
The Carp Fish and the
"Dragon Gate" as a Symbol of Perseverance
One of the most frequently
seen images in Chinese art is that of a carp swimming and
leaping against the current of a river to reach the
spawning grounds. The images illustrate the legend (liyutiaolongmen
鲤鱼跳龙门) that a carp which is able to leap over
the mythical "Dragon
Gate" will become a dragon. The
Chinese understand this to be an allegory for the
persistent effort needed to overcome obstacles.
Life's Gates and Crises
The Chinese believe
that a person must pass through a number of gates,
barriers and crises during the course of one's
life. These barriers or gates are called guan (关) in
Chinese. A child by the age of 15 is supposed to
have passed through 30 of these dangerous gates.
These life barriers have names such as the "Barrier of
the Demon of the Four Seasons", "Barrier of the
Devil's Gate", and "Barrier where the Bowels are
Severed" among others.
During ancient times, medical care was
primitive and the mortality rate for Chinese children
was very high. Chinese parents therefore relied
on charms and rituals to help protect their children
as they faced these difficult passages and crises in
A Fish Charm
to Protect Against Life's Barriers
The old charm shown
here is in the shape of a carp fish because it is
meant to symbolize persistence and effort in crossing
life's barriers or gates as a child grows to maturity.
The inscription is read right to left
as guan sha xiao
chu (官煞消除). Just as the Chinese like to
use animals and objects to symbolize other things with
the same pronunciation (see hidden meaning), in
this inscription the first character guan (官),
which means an official, should actually be written as
which means a gate or barrier. Guan sha (关煞)
refers to the "crises in a child's life" and xiao chu (消
除) means "to dispel or eliminate".
For the Chinese language purists, the character chu (除)
in the inscription is also written incorrectly with
the radical " 亻".
The charm in the shape of a carp fish with this
inscription thus symbolizes perseverance in overcoming
the barriers and gates a child must pass through to
The reverse side of the charm has no
inscription. The prominent scales indicate that
the fish is a carp.
This charm has a maximum length of 59 mm and maximum
width of 31 mm.
The charm weighs 16.8 grams.
For other charms used by Chinese parents to protect
their children please see Chinese
To see an ancient Chinese coin with a fish depicted on
its reverse side cast in 214 AD during the Three
Kingdoms period, please visit Chinese
Coins with Charm Features.
Return to Ancient
Charms and Coins