The Chinese Legend of King Carp

Red and white koi swimming in a pond.

King Carp appears to a fisherman in his dreams and makes a mutually beneficial arrangement with him. (Image: Pokko3 via Dreamstime)

During the Jiajing period of the Ming Dynasty, a fisherman in Jiangxi Province named Zhang Deyan spent his days fishing on the carp beach. He could barely make ends meet because of the heavy tax on fish imposed by the local government. However, King Carp was about to change that.

On the 15th day of the 4th lunar month of a particular year, Zhang Deyan built a bamboo fence on the carp beach and set up a fish trap to catch more fish during the evening fish flood. After everything was ready, Zhang Deyan took a nap on the boat.

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Shortly after he closed his eyes, Zhang Deyan dreamed of an old man standing in the water, speaking to him. “I am King Carp. Tonight, I will lead my offspring to spawn in Poyang Lake, and I will pass by here at the time of the sun, so please remove your fish trap.”

After hearing that, Zhang Deyan replied: “King Carp, I want to promise you, but the government is going to come to collect the fish tax at the beginning of next month. If I cannot pay it, the government will take away my fishing boat, and my livelihood will be lost.”

After hearing this, King Carp said: “Then I’ll give you a silver carp as payment for our journey.” When he finished, he took a silver carp from his pocket and handed it to Zhang Deyan, who hurriedly reached out to take it, but the silver carp fell into the river by accident.

Zhang Deyan awakened, and when he opened his eyes, he saw that the time had almost passed. So he went to see if there were any fish in the fish trap, but instead of a live fish, he found a carp-shaped silver ornament.

King Carp gave Zhang Deyan silver

Zhang Deyan took a closer look at the silver carp and saw that the scales were detailed and the eyes were lifelike as if they belonged to a live fish. He thought: “It seems King Carp has made the payment he promised.” So he hurriedly removed the fish trap.

After packing up, Zhang Deyan sat on the boat’s bow to see what was happening. After a while, the whole river bank was splashed with water from thousands of carp going down the river, led by King Carp.

After a while, the whole river bank was splashed with water from thousands of carp going down the river, led by King Carp.
After a while, the whole river bank was splashed with water from thousands of carp going down the river, led by King Carp. (Image: PatternPictures via Pixabay)

The next day, Zhang Deyan took the silver carp and rushed into town, where he found a pawn shop. Unfortunately, the pawnshop owner, named Zhao Xing, was a dishonest man. He took the silver carp, saw that the artistry was exquisite, and estimated that it was worth a hundred taels of silver. 

But when he looked at Zhang Deyan’s tattered clothes, he had an idea and said: “I think this silver carp is worth ten taels of silver because the workmanship is sloppy and the quality of the silver is poor.”

Zhang Deyan didn’t know anything about the market, so when he heard that it was worth ten taels of silver, he was overjoyed and replied: “Yes, that’s the amount.”

The following year, on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month, King Carp came again and gave Zhang Deyan a silver carp, which he took to Zhao Xing’s pawnshop to exchange for silver.

When Zhao Xing saw that Zhang Deyan had come to pawn the silver carp again, he took the opportunity to invite Zhang Deyan to a restaurant for a drink and asked him about the origin of the silver carp. Zhang Deyan told him about the silver carp.

After Zhao Xing heard about the origin of the silver carp, the next day, he found a local fisherman and asked him to drive Zhang Deyan away, while he bought a fishing boat and took over the carp beach.

The following year, on the 15th of the 4th lunar month, Zhao Xing hired someone to set up a fish trap on the shoal early in the morning, and near dusk, he fell asleep on the boat. In his dream, Zhao Xing saw that King Carp had come to buy his way, and he said excitedly: “Now the river bank is mine; you have to give me a gold carp before I can let you pass.”

King Carp thought for a moment and said: “Fine; I will give you a golden carp this time and a live one. It’s just that this golden carp needs to be fed with gold shavings; otherwise, it will starve to death.”

When he woke up, Zhao Xing went to check out the fish trap, and a golden carp left by King Carp was swimming around inside. So Zhao Xing found a jar and filled it with water, took the golden carp back home, and bought an exquisite fish tank to house the golden carp.

As he watched the golden carp swimming around in the tank, Zhao Xing wanted to use the carp to befriend the local officials and get himself a minor official post.

Suddenly, he noticed that the golden carp was sinking belly-up to the bottom of the tank, looking like it was on its last legs. So, remembering what King Carp said about feeding it with gold shavings, he rushed to find a gold ingot, scraped off a little with a knife, and threw the shavings into the water.

Strangely, as soon as the gold shavings were thrown into the tank, the still-dying golden carp immediately turned over and ate them up, regaining their life afterward.

When he saw that the gold shavings worked, Zhao Xing was relieved, but a few moments later, he found that the gold carp was half dead again, and only after feeding the gold shavings did it return to normal. So Zhao Xing kept feeding it. By the end of the day, he had provided the entire ingot to the carp.

A Chinese gold ingot.
By the end of the day, he had fed the entire gold ingot to the carp. (Image: Norman Chan via Dreamstime)

Zhao Xing looked at this situation. At the cost of one gold ingot a day, he would be unable to keep it up for long. So the next day, he took the gold carp to the local governor and offered it.

The governor saw that the gold carp could swim and move and thought that the regent, Yan Song, would return home to his family and pass through his district in three months, so if he sent it to Yan Song, he would be promoted. The governor then wanted to keep the golden carp.

Zhao Xing was afraid that the gold carp would starve to death, so he told him that the gold carp had to be fed with an ingot of gold scraps every day. When the governor heard this, he said to Zhao Xing: “The gold carp will be kept in your place, and I will return for it in three months.”

Zhao Xing wanted to say something else, but when he saw the governor’s face, he could only take the golden carp and go back unhappy.

After keeping the carp for three months, Zhao Xing had already lost all his money. So he resigned and waited for the day Yan Song came to Jiangxi to visit his relatives.

When Yan Song heard that the golden carp was golden and could swim and move, he felt it was miraculous and brought his staff along to see it.

However, when the lid of the fish tank was removed, there was no golden carp swimming around, only a carp carved out of stone lying at the bottom of the tank. Yan Song was furious and had the governor arrested and imprisoned.

Poor Zhao Xing, who now had nothing, was desperate and had to beg on the street to make a living.

When word of Zhao Xing’s affair with the governor reached the local fishermen, Zhang Deyan heard about it and went back to fishing on the carp beach. When the local fishermen heard about the story of King Carp, they felt blessed by the gods, and even the government did not dare to levy a fish tax on them.

He never dreamed of King Carp again, but on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month, Zhang Deyan would automatically remove the fish trap on the beach. Over time, it became a local custom that fishermen no longer went down to fish on the 15th day of the 4th lunar month.

Translated by Eva

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