The Significance of Fish in Chinese Language

Colorful fish mosaic.

GLady / Pixabay

Learning the word for fish in Chinese can be a highly useful skill. 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. Deconstructing the Chinese word for "fish" includes learning about pronunciation and its evolution from pictograph to a simplified character.

The Chinese Character for Fish 

The Chinese character for "fish," written in the traditional form, is 魚. The simplified form is 鱼. Regardless of what form it is written in, the word for fish in Chinese is pronounced like "you." Compared to English, the Chinese "yú" has a shorter, more relaxed ending, dropping the exaggerated "w" sound that rounds out the big, full vowel in "you."

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. 


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. Thus, 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

shark family
(including rays and skates)

tún leatherfish
jié oyster
ér caviar; roe/fish eggs
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. 

For instance, Asian carp (as they are known in the U.S.), are the subject of many Chinese lyrics and stories. The character for this creature 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 the idea that a carp that climbs the waterfall on the Yellow River (known as the Dragon Gate) transforms 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 examinations is like a carp attempting to leap the Dragon Gate. The dragon/carp relationship is referenced in popular culture in other countries through the Pokémon Magikarp and Gyarados.

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Su, Qiu Gui. "The Significance of Fish in Chinese Language." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, Su, Qiu Gui. (2020, August 28). The Significance of Fish in Chinese Language. Retrieved from Su, Qiu Gui. "The Significance of Fish in Chinese Language." ThoughtCo. (accessed June 5, 2023).