Historical excursus on the aquarium hobby, Part 3 – China

By Natasha Khardina

It is no longer the matter of debate whether it was the Romans or the Chinese the first who maintained ornamental ponds. China is considered the country, which has had the longest continuous history of cultivating fish for aesthetic purposes.

We know that in China, as long ago as 2698 BC, carp eggs were artificially incubated and silkworms were used to rear the young. This is detailed in the book of Fan Lai dating from 460 BC (Rohlich 1981).

Aquaculture in China.

Fan Lai wrote that silkworm culture began in 2698 BC and that the fish culture was aided by silkworm culture. According to his statements, the faeces and pupae of the silkworms were the important supplementary foods in the fish diet.

Zhejiang Huzhou Mulberry-dyke & Fish-pond System, China.

For this reason fishponds were located beneath silkworm colonies (Rabanal 1988). These records may be the valid proof that the Chinese fish culture antedated any other fish culture elsewhere.

Sustainable aquaculture and integrated fish farming in China.

The fact that in a grave from the Han period (25-220 AD) has been discovered a very well preserved model of two ornamental ponds – containing tail- wagging fishes– can be considered as demonstration that the fishponds were a common object (Bleher 2002) and fish were kept at least for food consumption purposes.

Carassius auratus, Amudarya River, Uzbekistan. ©BAP, photo N. Khardina

In the same China, but for entirely different reasons, namely religious ones, the domestication of goldfish, Carassius auratus was started (Chen 1956). Buddhism, that first reached China from India roughly 2000 years ago during the Han Dynasty, was focused on the act of self-purification that demanded from a believer the performance of at least one good deed per day.

The Buddhist "life release" ceremony.

During the Tang dynasty (618 – 907 AD) near the temple so called ‘ponds of mercy’ were established so that aquatic creatures could be released into them as part of such a good deed. In Buddhist tradition, setting an animal free was considered an act of compassion and was rewarded with good karma.

The Buddhist "life release" ceremony.

There were some rare cases documented since the beginning of the Sung Dynasty in 960 AD, when in the catches of the wild goldfish the occasional appearance of red aberrants took place (Balon 2006). We can speculate that the fish in this xanthic form were especially chosen for such a release in the belief that freeing a very rare creature will be a better deed than the release of an abundant, normally coloured form (Balon 1995).

Koi, Cyprinus carpio, China.

According to the publications by E. K. Balon of the University of Guelph in Ontario, Canada, it was probably Governor Ting Yen-tsan who established the first ‘ornamental fish pond’ for cultivated forms of goldfish in Kiahsing, and subsequently in Hangchow and Nanping.

Chinese garden and fishpond.

At this time golden Chi (Carassius auratus) were held in high regard in China, but keeping and cultivating these divine creatures was reserved for the priests. Not until 1163 the private citizens were allowed to keep these revered fishes in the captivity in houses. For Balon “they were captives exploited for religious purposes”. Even so, there was still no aquarium.

Goldfish vase, China.

Same Eugene K. Balon in his scientific paper The oldest domesticated fishes, and the consequences of an epigenetic dichotomy in fish culture in order to clear the confusion in regards of the worldwide propagation of the common carp (Cyprinus carpio) mentions Kwai Sin Chak Shik, a book written during the Sung Dynasty in 1243 AD, that describes how in China the fry of certain riverine pelagic carp species were transported in bamboo baskets. A Complete Book of Agriculture (Nongzheng Quanshu), written in 1639 AD Xu Guangqi describes the fact that the fry were collected in rivers and raised then in ponds. Pretty much the same way as they are transported and traded today (Balon 2006).

Transport of fry over short distances in the bamboo baskets, China

To be continued…


Balon Eugene K., The domestication of carp, Toronto, Life Sciences Miscellaneous Publications 1974, p. 5, in “Archive” 2019.

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 1 (2002), p. 13.

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 2 (2002), p. 13.

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 3 (2003), p. 13.

Bleher Heiko, Aquarium History, in “NUTRAFIN Aquatic News”, Vol. 4 (2004), p. 13.

Chen Yiyong, Sun Changsen, Zhan Aibin, Biological invasions in aquatic ecosystems in China, in “Aquatic Ecosystem Health & Management”, Vol. 20-4 (2017), pp. 402– 411

Rohlich Gerhard A. et al., Food, Fuel, and Fertilizer from Organic Wastes, Washington, National Academy Press 1981, pp. 7-11