Life & Times of the Ornamental Goldfish

History of Carassius auratus

Published December 23, 2014

Linnaeus was the first to scientifically identify the ornamental goldfish in 1758, naming it Cyprinus auratus. However in 1949, this name changed to Carassius auratus, the latinization of the vernacular German name ‘karausche’ for goldfish.  Regardless of the name, fishkeeping began with goldfish in ancient China. It may come as a surprise but goldfish did not start out as a pet. The wild carp of east Asia was reared as food for people and because of its ease of keeping the wild carp became the most commonly eaten fish in all of China. As they were kept in protected pools, the color mutations that would have caught the attentions of predators were allowed to exist. Normally silvery-grey, color mutations would produce a wild carp that was bright red, orange, or yellow. It must have been a wonder when the Chinese laid their eyes on the goldfish ancestor.  Their brilliant colors lead fish farmers to artificially select the species; thus, creating the goldfish we know today.


Three golden carp and several silvery-grey carp in a pond of mercy from Fish Swimming Amid Falling Flowers, a Song dynasty painting by Liu Cai (c.1080–1120)

Jīnyú, the ‘red fish’, was allegedly described about by King Ping of Zhou during the second year of his rule in 769 BC. Yet, it wasn’t until Jin dynasty that the color mutations of the wild carp were recorded. The golden coloration inspired Buddhist monks in the Tang dynasty (618 - 907 AD) to keep these fish in ponds where they were safe from predators. In Buddhist tradition, setting an animal free is considered an act of compassion and is rewarded with good karma. As a result, the golden carp were released into the ponds; only escaping the stewpot because of their beauty. According to legend, these ‘ponds of mercy’ were discovered by Governor Ting Yen-tsan outside the city of Jiaxing. He commissioned the first golden carp ponds to be constructed in Kaohsiung, Hangzhou, and Nanping China. At this point the golden carp and the wild carp were one in the same -  both shy upon approach and did not eat the food that was given. Nevertheless, the golden carp was admired so much that only monks were allowed to care for the divine creatures and it was illegal to eat the fish or use it in any other way.  

“They were captives exploited for religious purposes.”
— E. K. Balon of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada

The goldfish’s popularity was brought about by the royal family of the Song dynasty (1127 - 1279 AD). Around 1163 AD, the first private pond was established at Te Shou Palace in Hangzhou city and soon after other feudal lord constructed their own ponds too. Being isolated from the wild carp, the goldfish was now domesticated and distinct. In the pools of mercy they were accustomed to a human presence and were able to cared for with man-made techniques. If one could afford it, they would build their own private ponds stocking them with only the most colorful fish. With so many goldfish at hand, it was easy for keepers to breed fish for their desired appearances. Due to the extensive breeding, the white and red/white coloration was developed during this dynasty. With a couple of new varieties, the Chinese people were showing their admiration for the goldfish in works of art. Song dynasty poet, Su Shi (1036 - 1101) wrote how he and others found the goldfish to be aesthetically pleasing. In his poetry, people were often found leisurely adoring their fish.

I didn’t see you at your golden carp pond,
So I went right away and sought you at
Dingshan Village.
— Su Shi, Song dynasty poet


Mid 19th Century glass freshwater aquarium, containing Vallisneria spiralis and goldfish.

During Ming dynasty (1369 - 1644), goldfish were being kept indoors in jade vessels or earthen bowls where they breed easily. This enabled keepers to select for mutations that would not survive in the outdoor ponds. Around mid-fifteenth century, goldfish became the popular pet of the time and were kept by dignitaries and common folk, alike. Both class of keepers started noticing new traits, including: double tails, anal fins, dorsal-less backs, round bodies, and egg-shaped bodies. This breeding enthusiasm was described by one of the Sons of Heaven from the kingdom of Chang Ch’ien between 1577 and 1643. Since goldfish keeping was not solely for the aristocrats, commoners were able to participate in breeding as well. From this the red cap, telescope eye, matte scales, and calico coloration were established. By the end of the Ming dynasty in 1644, every household had their own goldfish basin. Goldfish provided entertainment and were so pleasurable that they were considered the heart of the home.

In wasn’t until the late Qing dynasty when the Chinese started recording their breeding process and how to select fish. In 1893, Yao Yuanzhi wrote in Random Notes from the Bamboo Leaf Pavilion that goldfish breeder Bao Wufeug had special methods for raising goldfish as well as four criteria for classifying and appraising goldfish. He stated that to be an aesthetically pleasing goldfish must have (1) a thickset, well proportioned body, (2) a large, straight tail, (3) evenly set, symmetrical eyes, (4) a regularly shaped, round body. These early physical classifications developed the goldfish into many of the classical varieties that we have today. These varieties were later described in all their colorations, splendor, and magnificence by China's first goldfish connoisseur Zhange Quiade in Cinnabar Register of Fish. Although goldfish were known for their wide range of variety, it was their charm and beauty of movement that attracted and inspired their keepers to continue creating masterpieces.

Goldfish give their owners - their audience - endless joy as they perform a living comedy, displaying in their infinite poses and movements humor, absurdity, drama, and grace. We can look upon the goldfish’s movements as a splendid stage performance: the physical form of the goldfish, which depicts its style of movement, is equivalent to the dancers talent; its flowing fins are its costume, and it bright colors are its makeup. Surely everyone has seen goldfish that were as silly as clowns, or as lively as mischievous children, or as calm and dignified as cultivated gentlemen, or as poised and confident as well-bred young ladies. Every inch of their bodies, even in the tiniest movement, is the embodiment of beauty in motion
— Jackie Chan and Louis Chan, Appreciating and Evaluating Chinese Goldfish

The Chinese couldn't hold on to their secret for too long before others found out. In the 1500s goldfish were imported at the trading ports in western Japan, especially in the merchant city Sakai, near Osaka. The fish that were originally brought over resembled the Wakin, meaning ‘Japanese goldfish’, and were only kept by the nobility, wealthy merchants, and the high ranking members of the samurai. Over the next century, goldfish popularity was spreading to the major cities, like Kyto, Osaka, and Edo (modern day Tokyo). However during the Edo Period (1600 - 1868), Japan was closed off to the world and its government prohibited trade and prevented people from coming or leaving the country. Against all odds, the goldfish was able to survive this dry period. Many imports were able to make it to mainland Japan, including the Ryukin from the Ruykyu islands southwest of Okinana, the Oranda Shishigashira from Holland, and the Maruko from China. Many of the fish were actually indirectly imported from China. Since Japan was allowing trade with the Dutch, European ships would depart from China and stop in Nagasaki, Japan. Therefore, anything associated with Europe, like the Oranda, was said to be from Holland.   


The Japanese Fantail Goldfish from The goldfish and its systematic culture with a view of profit… by Hugo Mulertt (1883)

While imports were few and far between, the Japanese started raising and breeding goldfish of their own. Feudal lords were even encouraged the peasants to breed goldfish. The workers used goldfish as a way to gain influence with the feudal lords by presenting prize fish to secure promotions or favors.  Because the Japanese had different taste when it came to cultivating fish, these prized goldfish were light and whimsical creatures. While the Chinese goldfish were short finned with round bodies, resembling old-world dragons or deities, the Japanese breed their elegant fish to have smaller and compact bodies, possessing long and flowing finnage. Out of these breeding programs some of the goldfish produced were the Jinkin, local goldfish, and the Osaka Ranchu. They also established lines of goldfish that were intended to be viewed from above, like the Tosakin.

Towards the end of the Edo period, the declining wealth of the samurai and feudal lords provoked them to use goldfish breeding to supplement their treasuries. By increasing production and lowering prices, these long-gone leaders enabled the goldfish to reach the hands of the common people. As the goldfish moved from west to east, commoners widened the variety of goldfish by utilizing the breeding techniques of the old world. The telescope eye, calico coloration, and celestial eye were some of the many features that were developed at this time. Unfortunately the destruction that WWII brought caused many of these varieties to perish. As the goldfish had shown before - once one door closes, a window of opportunity opens. These losses made for a new influx of Chinese goldfish including blue Orandas, chocolate Orandas, telescope Orandas, Pearlscales, butterfly tails and panda coloration. The Japanese immediately started crossing these fish with the existing varieties creating calico  and red/white nacreous (Sakura Nishikis) Ranchus and several others. To this day, the Japanese are regarded as the ultimate goldfish producers exporting 100 million goldfish each year.

The goldfish took the long journey to the Western world with the aid of Marco Polo from 1254 to 1323. From then the goldfish disappeared until it presented itself at the English court of James I (1566 - 1625). In 1691, it was documented that the goldfish came to Portugal where it later moved on to Italy. Around 1750, Marquise de Pompadour, chief mistress of King Louis XV, presented goldfish to the French court.

Gold scales, embroidered gills, red and white fins; Restlessly hither and thither they play in the waves.
— Paul A. Zahl

Up to this point, all the fish that were in the western world were Chinese goldfish. However, once Japan took over the goldfish breeding trade in the 1700s, their fish were the first top quality fish in western ponds. Keeping goldfish in ponds promoted breeding as it had done before in China. In Germany, Paul Matte bred and stabilized the “matte strain” from Japanese goldfish that were imported in 1885. Goldfish didn’t make it to the United States until 1874 when Rear-Admiral Daniel Ammon brought the creatures from the far east. Eventually extensive breeding on large establishments were taking place and by the 1900s goldfish keeping was at its height in Europe and the United States.


Chinese Goldfish Stamps, National Geographic April 1973

When tropical fish entered the aquarium hobby, goldfish were (for the lack of better words) forgotten. Even in Japan it seemed that goldfish might be left behind when the country experienced a major freshwater and saltwater boom in the 1980s and 1990s. Nevertheless, it was the enthusiasts that developed strict breeding standards in order to maintain top quality fish. The English were at the breeding forefront and established many goldfish keeper societies, including the Bristol Aquarists’ Society and the Goldfish Society of Great Britain. In the United States, there are numerous specialty clubs, including the Goldfish Society of America and the American Goldfish Association. In Japan there seems to be a goldfish renaissance resurging from  increased leisure time and interest in traditional culture. The best Japanese breeders and elite clubs maintain the stock and bloodlines of Ranchus better than anyone else. The internet has also linked hobbyist around the world who have developed the growing awareness of modern-day fish keeping methods. With this specific attention, goldfish will no doubt make a comeback and become the people’s favorite once again.



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