The Significance of Fish in Chinese Language

The Evolution of the Chinese Character and the Cultural Importance of Fish

Chinese Characters

Learning the word for fish in Chinese can be a much more useful skill than you initially imagined. From ordering seafood at a restaurant to understanding why there are so many fish themed decorations during Chinese New Years, knowing how to say fish in Chinese is both practical and an insight into cultural values.

That's why we are going to deconstruct the Chinese word for fish by learning about its evolution from pictograph to a simplified character, its pronunciation, and more. 

The Chinese Character for Fish 

The Chinese character for fish written in the traditional form is 魚 while the simplified form is 鱼. Regardless of what form it is written in, the word for fish in Chinese is pronounced, yú. 

Evolution of the Chinese Character for Fish

The traditional form of the Chinese character for fish evolved from an ancient pictograph. In its earliest form, the word for fish clearly showed the fins, eyes, and scales of a fish.

The current traditional form incorporates the four strokes of the fire radical, which looks like this (灬).Perhaps this addition suggests that fish is most useful to human beings when it is cooked. 

Radical

This character is also a traditional radical, meaning that the primary graphical component of the character is used as a building block in other, more complex Chinese characters. Radicals, also sometimes called classifiers, ultimately become a shared graphical component for several characters. That is why the Chinese dictionary is often organized by radical.

Many complex characters share the radical that derives from "fish." Surprisingly, a lot of them are not related to fish or seafood at all. Here are some of the most common examples of Chinese characters with a fish radical.

Traditional Characters Simplified Characters Pinyin English
八帶魚 八带鱼 bā dài yú octopus
鮑魚 鲍鱼 bào yú abalone
捕魚 捕鱼 bǔ yú to catch fish
炒魷魚 炒鱿鱼 chǎo yóu yú to be fired
釣魚 钓鱼 diào yú to go fishing
鱷魚 鳄鱼 è yú alligator; crocodile
鮭魚 鮭鱼 guī yú salmon
金魚 金鱼 jīn yú goldfish
鯨魚 鲸鱼 jīng yú whale
鯊魚 鲨鱼 shā yú shark
魚夫 鱼夫 yú fū fisherman
魚竿 鱼竿 yú gān fishing rod
魚網 鱼网 yú wǎng fishing net
shā

shark family (including animals like rays and skates)

tún leatherfish
jié oyster
ér caviar; fish roe
gěng blunt; fish bones; unyielding
qīng mackerel; mullet
jīng whale
hòu king crab

Cultural Importance of Fish in China

The pronunciation of fish in Chinese, yú,  is a homophone for “affluence” or “abundance." This phonetic similarity has led to fish becoming a symbol of abundance and prosperity in Chinese culture. As such, fish are a common symbol in Chinese art and literature, and they are particularly important in Chinese mythology. 

Asian carp (as they are known in the United States), for instance, are the subject of many Chinese lyrics and stories, the character for which is 鲤 鱼 pronounced lǐ yú. Pictures and depictions of fish are also a common decoration for Chinese New Year.

Fish in Chinese Mythology

One of the most interesting Chinese myths about fish is that if a carp can climb the waterfall on the Yellow River, known as the Dragon Gate, the carp will transform into a dragon. The dragon is another important symbol in Chinese culture. 

In reality, each spring carp gather in great numbers in the pool at the base of the waterfall, but very few actually make the climb. It has become a common saying in China that a student facing his or her examinations is like a carp attempting to leap the Dragon Gate.