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October - December 2015 Jade Dragon Online

Koi — Living Works of Art

Koi FishImagine you are sitting on a low stone bench, in a peaceful Oriental garden, next to a pond. You look down and see flashes of bright red, silver, black, creamy white, and golden yellow gliding under the water. A school of koi inhabits the pond.

Known as "living jewels," koi have been adorning garden ponds for over two thousand years. Also known as brocaded carp or Nishikigoi, they have been bred for beautiful colors that are most effectively appreciated from above (as in a pond setting) and for their personalities. They can be trained to feed from the hand and to do tricks. They are family pets that have been known to live in some Japanese ancestral ponds for generations.

Koi are not goldfish. Actually, they are a variety of carp, selectively bred to enhance a color mutation that developed several hundred years ago from a standard black or gray fish. They are a symbol of strength and masculinity in China and Japan.

Their breeding history goes back over 400 years. Initially, carp were found in the seas of the Middle East and were merely a food source. In fact a carp dinner for Christmas was traditional in southern parts of Europe. Genghis Khan is credited with spreading carp across Asia. He seeded them in lakes along his travel routes to supply provisions for his troops. Japanese koi were bred from stock that came from China and Germany.

Farmers in Niigata Prefecture kept carp in irrigation canals around their fields to be used as a protein source during harsh winters. It wasn’t until 1502 that carp were first sold for ornamentation in garden ponds. Wealthy families began breeding koi for their spectacular reddish-orange color as a luxury pastime.

Carp breeding first came to America in 1831 and to California in 1872. During World War II, Japanese breeders kept their koi stock in mountain caves for safety. Since the early 1900s deliberate crossbreeding for color variations has developed many new types of koi.

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