Saturday, September 19, 2009

Carps Jumping Over the Dragon Gate 鲤鱼跳龙门

It is common to see golden carp fish swim leisurely in peaceful ponds in Chinese gardens. The Chinese like carp fish because the Chinese character for carp (li) is pronounced the same as both the character (li) for "profit" and the character (li) for "strength" or "power". The carp is also a symbol for an abundance of children because it produces many eggs.

For the Chinese, a pair of carp symbolizes a harmonious marriage.
In Chinese paintings, a frequently seen image is of a carp swimming and leaping against the current of a river. This refers to the legend that a carp which is able to leap over the mythical "Dragon Gate" will become a dragon. This is an allegory for the persistent effort needed to overcome obstacles.
The legend comes from Tai Ping Guang Ji (Tai Ping Anthologies):
‘East of the Yellow River stood a mountain called Longmen (Dragon Gate). King Yu dug into it and made in it a one-li (half-km) long gate, through which the Yellow River flowed downward. On neither side of it could carriages or horses stand or move.
Towards the end of spring every year, yellow carps from the seas and rivers would vie with each other in coming to the gate and trying to get through it. But no more than seventy-two of them would succeed. Once they passed the Dragon gate, they would be followed by clouds and rain, and their tails would be burned off by heavenly fire. Then they would become dragon. ’
The story simply means that if a person works hard at whatever he does, he could one day become successful. The saying ‘carps jumping over the dragon gate’ is used to encourage a person to persist in one’s endeavour.
In the past, a carp leaping over the dragon’s gate was used as a metaphor for success in passing the imperial examinations which started about 2,000 years ago. The examinations were used to select the brightest brains for top government positions. Those who made it in the examinations would ensure prestige and wealth for the family.
On the basis of this legend, the Carp becomes, in the Chinese cultural tradition, a symbol of courage and perseverance. It teaches that only the fittest and the strongest can achieve the highest goals.

每岁季春,有黄鲤鱼,自海及渚川争来赴之。 一岁中,登龙 门者,不过七十二。初登龙门,即有云雨随之,天火自后烧其尾,乃化为龙矣。

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