japonisme: on the wings of a big orange fish

08 December 2007

on the wings of a big orange fish


I was always afraid of Somes's Pond:
Not the little pond, by which the willow stands,
Where laughing boys catch alewives in their hands
In brown, bright shallows; but the one beyond.
There, when the frost makes all the birches burn
Yellow as cow-lilies, and the pale sky shines
Like a polished shell between black spruce and pines,
Some strange thing tracks us, turning where we turn.

You'll say I dream it, being the true daughter
Of those who in old times endured this dread.
Look! Where the lily-stems are showing red
A silent paddle moves below the water,
A sliding shape has stirred them like a breath;
Tall plumes surmount a painted mask of death.

Elinor Wylie

I think it would help to understand the common theme that runs throughout all the art and figurines that we are posting. To do that I think we need to appreciate the culture and legends that produce a universial image of carp, and by extension, the image of koi. As westerners, it is our tendency to look at koi and then look deeper into carp and then come to an impass as to why some things in koi are the way they are? If we start at the 'other end' that is, within the fabic of the culture that created the nishikigoi, we can begin to understand more about the symbolic aspects of koi and how subjective judging includes power, strength, grace and 'presence'.

A carp is a symbol of struggle and endurance. And that symbolism leads to success and reward of life. The Chinese and later the Japanese, who adopted much of Chinese culture as their own over the centuries, observed that carp struggle up stream and never seem to give up that drive. From this a very wide spread fable of the carp that , against all odds, swims up the mighty river of China to the dragon’s gate. The Dragon gate is the area where the river ends and the mountain’s heavy water flow begins. The carp struggles and never gives up and eventually transcends the head waters and reaches his goal. The reward is to become the dragon, a very wise and all powerful creature.

You can see how this worked in the minds of ancient people. The carp is scaled ( like the dragon) fish and seems on a mission as it swims against the current. Dragon myth are common and well loved figures in Asian cultures, from India to Japan. They symbolize many things to the different cultures but always wisdom and power are included in the image.

Carp not only scaled like a dragon, they are also scaled like armor. And this is why Samurai loved keeping wild carp and why carp flags are a symbol of manhood and man’s struggle for success in life.

By the way, this is how and why the serious Japanese keeper sees large , really feminine full bodied koi, as powerful and more of the male image than the female.

So who are these riders on these giant koi? A monk, a boy, a scholar and a warrior. Each is a fable. Mostly from Chinese religions and most are folklore or parables. The monk is on a quest for enlightenment and is taken to the bottom of the sea by a giant carp and shown the wonders of a magical underwater city . The warrior is symbolism of the armored warrior who will not give of the struggle and win by endurance. The scholar is an Chinese figure of several fables that flies on the ‘wings’ of a flying carp in search of wisdom. And the boy, is on a journey to manhood and success in life. This then ties into ‘Boy’s day’ in Japan , the release of live carp into the waters as a symbol of the young boy becoming a man and reaching his goals in life- success, riches, good health etc. 1

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Blogger ed_weekly said...


I have a question: is the Harunobu image (last image) displayed correctly? I found another image and it was the reverse or mirror image of the woman on the carp. Unfortunately, I can't read Japanese so I can't tell.

Reverse Image Here


Ed Weekly

15 December, 2007 13:26  
Blogger lotusgreen said...

damn you're good ed, but you've outed me! i admit it, i am a very occasional image flipper for the sake of design.

but i'll add, somewhat in my defense, i'm hardly the only one. i see images every day that it's impossible to be sure which is the 'right way' because there seem to be an equal amount of both versions! in fact i've posted images then found out accidentally much later that i had them wrong.

good eye!

15 December, 2007 17:06  

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hi, and thanks so much for stopping by. i spend all too much time thinking my own thoughts about this stuff, so please tell me yours. i thrive on the exchange!

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