Origin of Koi

So many inventions and customs originated in China that it’s not uncommon for me to learn one that I never knew about before. Sometimes, however, the claims get a little ridiculous.

My favorite is the claim that the Japanese are actually a lost tribe of Chinese from southern Zhejiang, and that the Japanese language has evolved out of the dialect of Wenzhou. I think the first part is simply a creative attempt to explain Japan’s financial success while holding onto Chinese pride. The second part is undoubtedly rooted in the fact that a lot of Chinese people think that Wenzhou’s dialect–a dialect reknowned for being totally unintelligible to speakers of virtually any other dialect in China–sounds like Japanese. The people that say it sounds like Japanese usually understand no actual Japanese. As someone that understands Japanese, I can assure you that Wenzhou-hua sounds nothing like Japanese.

Recently I ran into another possible example of a far-fetched claim related to Japan. The claim is that the practice of keeping koi (colorful carp) originated in China. I immediately found this suspect, but then figured it was probably largely because my time spent in Japan was my first significant contact with the tradition, and the word koi has been imported into the English language from Japanese (not Chinese) recently. Obviously, neither of these reasons are real evidence that the practice of raising koi really originated in Japan.

I checked my favorite reference, Wikipedia. The koi entry had this to say on the matter:

While a Chinese book of the Western Jin Dynasty (4th century) mentions carp with various colors, Koi breeding is generally thought to have begun during the 19th century in the Niigata prefecture of Japan.

This doesn’t prove anything conclusively, so I thought maybe it would be wise to ask an actual domesticated carp where the practice originated:


Yeah, I thought so.


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Oh, it still proves nothing. It could be taken as evidence that even the Japanese flag was an import from China, along with this carp, haha.

  2. Gin,

    Hehe, good point.

  3. Sounds a little fishy to me too.

  4. Oh, come now. That’s clearly 虫鱼之学.

  5. nice one!

  6. My friend Ryan says what similarities there are between Wenzhouhua and Nipponggo are post Sino-Japanese War, due to the large influx of Japanese trade into the city.

  7. Haha What a strange fish 😮

    Speaking of Koi’s origin… http://www.chinahistoryforum.com/index.php?showtopic=3694

  8. Looks tasty!

    Very interesting article. The relationship between China and Japan is fascinating and mysterious. There’s a scientist who recently tried to trace the genetic history of the entire human race, using DNA to date migration patterns. Can’t remember his name, right now. He was on PBS, anyway.

    But it was funny, because this scientist, who obviously IS doing really important work, nonetheless had this gratingly self-congratulatory personality. Perhaps his innovations would be better known, and I’d be able to remember his name, if he didn’t come off as such a dork. But I’d probably come off the same, I suppose.

    I love that you communicated telepathically with the fish. That’s so cool.

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: July 3, 2005 at 7:35 am

    I have a very hard time believing that keeping carp in ponds originated in 19th-century Japan. I’m not being ethnocentric here, but I truly believe it originated in China, as Peng’s articles show. If something’s DISTINCTIVELY Japanese–kimonos, samurai, seppuku (haha)–with NO PARALLELS in Chinese society, then yes, it’s Japanese. Otherwise, if both societies have practiced it for centuries, then I would think it’s Chinese in origin.

    Anyways, what difference does it make cuz the Africans invented everything anyway, like the “sytem of higher education” and “medecine.” Haha. Don’t believe me, then check this out:


    • genevieve yuen Says: February 12, 2010 at 3:32 am

      after seeing paintings from the shang dynasty of courtly people relaxing and socializing the table, i realized that japanese kimonos do in fact come from china. the ladies are wearing gowns distinctively constructed in that style though simple, not the elaborated variety that we know now of the japanese.

      also, these people (courtly and leisurely) sat on the ground at very low tables, in the japanese fashion that still exists among ordinary folks in japan today. i think we’re talking 3,000 years ago.

      i do know that the fan, collapsible folding kind, definitely is a japanese invention. the chinese even till the last dynasty used the flat kind, like a palm leaf style. my guess is that the origami so developed (i believe invented in china) in japan naturally led to the folding fan, which looks like origami-like, doesn’t it?

      recently found out the flags are a chinese invention, that surprised me. also, the first restaurants — in 600 a.d.

      would like to hear from you. thanks. genevieve yuen

      would like

  10. Richard Says: July 5, 2005 at 11:54 pm

    Kimonos came from Tang dynasty China.

    The Chinese probably didn’t call it seppuku, but defeated generals have been committing suicide on the Chinese mainland since forever.

  11. While the Japanese have rightfully earned their reputation as the planet’s koi-craziest people, the Chinese were the first to breed koi (Cyprinus carpio) and their close relatives, goldfish (Carassius auratus), in the 1300s. In fact, the word “koi” is of Chinese origin; the Japanese, who started breeding colorful carp in only 1800 or so, call the fish nishikigoi. (Koi first became popular in the United States after World War II.)


  12. WOW! What a Koi!!

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: October 5, 2006 at 6:39 am


    “Kimonos came from Tang dynasty China.” Wow, I had no idea. Whatever the case, I’d sooner believe the Japanese invented the practice of keeping koi as I’d believe Roger Bacon invented gunpowder and Gutenberg movable type.

  14. It’s true about kimonos as well as korean hanbok being derivations of ancient Chinese costumes. During the golden age of the Tang Dynasty, China was much admired and greatly influenced neighboring countries, especially Japan and Korea which have preserved aspects of ancient Chinese arts and culture, much of which unfortunately has been forgotten in the mother country with Manchu rule and the cultural revolution.

  15. No disputes here. Koi art culture originated from China. Kimonos are also a derivation of the Chinese hanfu. Like most things arriving into Japan, they are “Japanified”. Not being ethnocentric. China and Japan have similar cultures yet many variations of essentially the same thing. Since Japan was the first Asia Pacific country to have reached out to the world’s mainstream, aspects of pan-Asian culture have been recognized as Japanese. It’s a good thing. Via the Japanified culture, people could find other Asian variations and can understand about more the Asian heritage.

  16. Ulquiorra Says: May 6, 2010 at 1:16 am

    I think koi are more like myself. Quiet. Pretty and sweet.

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