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The Enduring Art of Fish-Keeping in China

2016-11-17 19:45:47

If you’ve ever been to pretty much any company office in China, chances are you’ve noticed the inevitable aquarium that greets you as you walk in. Typically, these are filled with bright red ‘wealth fish’ or an imposing – and expensive – arowana, a huge, shimmering predator that looks like this:

But why? Is fish-keeping simply the Chinese CEO’s hobby of choice? Fish tanks are everywhere in Chinese businesses, restaurants, hotels, and offices – and of course are also popular in homes. To discover why, as with most things Chinese, we must turn to history.

China’s piscine forays began over two thousand years ago, with the domestication of wild carp for food (though the Chinese weren’t the first to keep fish – evidence from ancient Sumeria dates back to 2500 BC). Carp in particular have long been highly regarded in China, traditionally considered to be capable of transforming into dragons, and today’s prize fish, the arowana, is known in Chinese as the ‘dragon fish’. The Jin dynasty (AD 265-420) provides the first written record of orange and yellow coloured carp; during the Tang dynasty (618-907), people started keeping these fish for their ornamental value – and started to breed them specifically for their red, orange, and gold colours, ultimately giving us the ubiquitous goldfish of today. But it was really in the Song dynasty (960-1279) that enthusiasm for fish-keeping became firmly established – at this time, the yellow variety became associated with the imperial family, yellow being the imperial colour, and no one else was permitted to keep them. Later, people began to raise them indoors, giving rise to all sorts of fancy varieties which could not survive outside but are now popular across the globe. Goldfish farmers in China continue to raise them today, breeding them in shallow earthenware bowls which show off their extravagant finnage.

A fancy goldfish in a bowl

So there’s a long tradition of fish-keeping in China, with links to the emperor, but that doesn’t really explain why the business fish tank is quite so pervasive. Part of the answer lies in language: in Mandarin, the words for ‘fish’ and ‘abundance’ share the same pronunciation, yu, so keeping a fish tank in an office should encourage profits. This is closely linked to another ancient practice, fengshui, which is all about positioning different objects harmoniously to encourage good fortune. A fish tank brings not only the benefits of the fish themselves, but also of the water they live in, which is associated with renewal. Even images of fish are considered lucky. During the New Year, it is common to see elaborate paper cuts of carp adorning windows and doors. Again, it’s about encouraging prosperity – a common phrase goes ‘have abundance year after year’, nian nian you yu, and images of fish, yu, encourage this abundance.

Mural in the style of a paper-cut fish

Of course, people take these practises seriously to different degrees. Plenty of people install fish tanks in their offices no doubt because it is simply the ‘done thing’. Others delve deeper into fengshui, like the owner of a face-mask company I met near Hangzhou, who filled his office with as many fengshui trinkets as he could – including a very crowded aquarium. This aquarium was not the standard home for some wealth fish (also known as a parrot cichlid) or a lone arowana, the most common aquatic denizens of office lobbies. It contained both these kinds, but also several other species, and the owner explained to me how he had purchased the different fish according to fengshui principles. Each fish has a different function depending on its shape, colour, or habits. The red wealth fish encourage abundance with their colour and round shape. Black fish help to ward off evil. And catfish supposedly transform the tank into a complete whole by consuming waste.

When I asked a fengshui consultant about all this, he told me that the symbolism of each fish is closely tied to an individual’s fate, as well as to the structure of the universe. If you turn to the ancient classic the Yi Jing (I Ching), or Book of Changes, you will find an account of the universe’s creation, from one splitting into two, then four, then eight. To encourage harmony in your home or business, you can attempt to mirror that process by selecting particular fish in groups of one, two, four, and eight. The one fish represents the unifying force of the cosmos – and in fish form this ought to be the mighty arowana. He also told me that you can choose the eight fish based on the ‘eight characters’ of your birth. In Chinese fortune telling, your fate can be calculated by considering the hour, day, month, and year you were born, each of which is labelled with two characters. So if you’re willing to delve deeper than simply associating ‘fish’ with ‘abundance’, you can tailor that abundance to your personal life circumstances.

Goldfish for sale in Hong Kong’s famous ‘Goldfish Street’

Of course, most people don’t go into this kind of detail – though they might hire a fengshui specialist’s advice. The importance of this can be seen simply by strolling around a ‘flower and bird market’, an institution which exists in most cities and typically has a large section devoted to fish (flowers are also used in fengshui, and bird-keeping remains a popular traditional hobby, especially among older men). If you get a chance to visit one of these, or the famous ‘Goldfish Street’ in Hong Kong, you’ll notice that there are several kinds of stalls. Some sell goldfish at very cheap prices, typically out of washing-up bowls, along with other small pets, and these are popular with children. Other shops are designed for the dedicated fish-keeper, with all kinds of tropical species, equipment, plants, and more. But some stand out as sleek and impressive, often including a large tea table surrounded by tanks containing big, imposing fish. These are the fengshui fish dealers, and they offer consultation and installation services as well as top-grade livestock.

They are also expensive. A full set-up to house a prize arowana can cost the equivalent of a couple of thousand pounds – and the fish itself could cost many times that amount. So understandably, as well as being good for promoting wealth, an arowana aquarium can be a serious status symbol. I remember visiting a friend in Hangzhou who had just set up his company and moved into a new office. He’d installed a fish tank with a very impressive arowana, and was visibly proud of it, taking time to ask my opinion on the fish and admire its beauty. Pride can be taken in more humble fish, too. Another businessman I met kept an enormous tank of wealth fish in his office, and explained with great satisfaction that they were very difficult to care for properly. And it’s true that often these fish are kept in overcrowded or undersized tanks – but this man had taken great pains to provide plenty of space and clean water for his charges.

Today, fish-keeping in China continues a tradition dating back over a thousand years. But now, it is not only the goldfish that is admired, but a whole range of tropical species too. Likewise, enjoying the beauty of colourful underwater creatures is no longer the preserve of an elite, but takes place in homes and offices throughout the country. And even if you can’t afford an arowana, you can still reap the rewards of keeping a goldfish or two.

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