Magikarp And The Dragons Gate: It’s Connection With Chinese And Japanese Mythology.

Right image: Art by Yuumei

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It’s impressive how much thought has been put behind Pokemon designs as far back as the original Red and Blue games in 1996. The designers took inspiration from a plethora of mythologies and urban legends.

Magikarp is no exception. The “useless” fish that in the first game could only learn the move splash, which does nothing, and tackle, one of the weakest moves in the game. You can catch it early in the game with an old rod.

While you are just learning how to fish for the first time, you can throw your old rod lure into the water again… and again… and again… and again.. only to find another Magikarp… and another Magikarp…. and another Magikarp… Again… and again…

Gameplay footage of the original Pokemon Red/Blue game where a man in a Pokemon center is offering to sell a "swell Magikarp for just 500 pokedollars"
This old man also tells players that Magikarp is rare (when it isn’t) when he offers to sell one to you.
(Yes this is what video-games looked like back then folks)

And yet, the so called “useless” fish turns out to not be so useless after all… after you evolve it at level 20.

Somebody’s bout to become a snack.

Magikarp evolves into one of the most powerful water types in the game, and one of the most intimidating Pokemon in the anime; Gyarados. The little Pokemon grows up to be a power house, able to obliterate anyone who’s ever dared to make fun of it as a smaller fish.

Yet this seemingly random glow-up isn’t quite as random as it might seem at first; Magikarp’s ascension into badassery turns out to have clear roots in a similar tale of perseverance and ascension in Chinese and Japanese mythology. The legend is most commonly known as the Carp And The Dragons Gate legend where some kind of fish turns into an almighty dragon.

The story seems to have spread elsewhere is Asia as well but I did not have time to pursue a lot of research into the mythology/storytelling context of those other locations.

In various accounts of the Chinese legend the fish involved are most commonly referred to simply as carp, presumably either the Common Carp (Cyprinus Carpio) or Amur Carp (Cyprinus rubrofuscus). Both species are native to China. The Japanese legends tend to speak specifically of the Koi fish, a general term for the famous colored varieties of Amur Carp often kept as pets all over Asia and the world, especially in Japan. Koi are considered good luck due to their association with the legend.

Above: Koi fish photographed by Bert Esposado. Below: Cover of book by Mingmei Yip

There are many versions of the Chinese and Japanese legends, many of which have been passed down from previous generations through verbal storytelling aka oral tradition. There are certainty many versions I haven’t been able to find preserved on the internet or in the several books I scavenged from my public library’s upper floors and children’s section (because apparently all adults are supposed to care about is politics, communism and debates on whether myths/legends are real or not).

Of the surviving versions I could find, nearly all of them have at least this much in common: a Carp or Koi fish swam up a waterfall and then turned into a dragon…

which sounds a hella lot like a particular Pokemon anime episode in the Orange Islands saga, episode 109: The Whacky Watcher!

The episode opens up out in the ocean, where a random scientist draws Ash and crew’s attention towards a large school of Magikarp headed towards a place called Rind Island. Although some modern retellings of the legend tend to focus on a particular carp from a small humble pond, there is in fact evidence that the ocean is also an important starting point for many carp in the legend.

The ‘old encyclopedia’ I’m referring to is known as the “Taiping Guangji” (太平广记)& a translation of the whole book can also be found on Amazon for $4.

The first known written recording of the Chinese carp legend is said to have been recorded in Sanqin ji (San Qin ji) (Recordings of the Three Qin) (三秦記 /) around the year 25–220 AD… which we only know the existence of based on another book that quoted it. None of the original copies of the Sanqin ji have been found. Nonetheless, we know an old encyclopedia shown on the right gave us a quotation from the missing Sanqin ji that, as translated by a Chinese Literature MA graduate Ruben Wen on Quora states:

“there are yellow carps traveled from the ocean or various of rivers gathering under the foot of Dragon Gate mountain in the third spring month every year,” (emphasis added, see the whole quotation on Quora here).

The Pokemon episode continues to show us the Magikarp swimming upriver once they make it to the Island. In real life, it’s often specified that the carp swim up the Yellow River deep into mainland China since Yellow River’s waterfall dubbed “Dragon’s Gate” is the most famous. There are, however, multiple “Dragon’s Gates” in China, such as on the Wei river. (An excerpt from Year Of The Dragon: Legends And Lore on the book writer’s own website)

In the Pokemon anime episode, Magikarp are shown swimming up a waterfall. It’s stated that about half the Magikarp won’t make it.

This is one of those mundane details which understandably have a lot of variations. In some stories it might be implied or shown that only one carp turns into a dragon… such as in this version where many Koi fish tried to climb the waterfall for 100 years until one finally succeeded (I wasn’t able to track back an original source for this one though). The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin (scroll down a bit after that link to read the quotation) (- Hakuin Ekaku {1686-1769}, Japanese Zen Master and artist, “The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin,” translated by Norman Waddell, 1994, p.64) also used singular pronouns to refer to a single fish for the entire story.

In many cases this might however, be merely the byproduct of a preference for telling stories with a single protagonist, and not necessarily confirmation that only one carp succeeded.

Storytelling doesn’t always directly address whats happening to characters whom are nonessential to the story, this can also be seen in today’s stories (image from Soul Eater).
Painting by Karlen Tam.
Spot the main character of this story.

Oftentimes the question as to whether other carp have successfully turned into a dragon is either left vague or the number of carp is left unspecified. On the other hand sometimes the number of fish turning into dragons is oddly specific. The Sanqin ji I’ve referenced above had stated that “only less than 72 of them could jump over the dragons gate every year,” the number of fish that try is unspecified, meaning we have no way of determining a correct percentage even based on the Sanqin ji account.

Some interpretations of the legend may not directly voice the possibility of carp coming back to try again next year, as is considered in the Pokemon anime. In fact, many, especially the older accounts seem to have been quite brutal towards the poor fish. The Essential Teachings of Zen Master Hakuin is by far the the most dramatic variation of the legend I have come across. Imagine, “There are wild, thousand foot waves that rush down through gorges towering to dizzying heights on either side, carrying away whole hillsides as they go,” (which is only a small fraction of the paragraph-long description of the situation, involving lightning too for some reason) then the fish becomes a dragon after it dies.

Nooooo, don’t die Magikarp! (Screenshot from Magikarp Jump and yes, your Magikarp can die in Magikarp Jump 😢)

The tone of any given story likely reflects the storyteller’s reality and/or perspective in life.

My personal favorite seems to be a spoof off of one of the more brutal sounding variations… the main character is a weak little fish yet it outsmarts the hungry birds and even an actual dragon by being a smart alek. This one was recorded by blogger Parvathy Eswaran during World Storytelling day, March 23rd 2014 celebrated at Kathalaya Bangalore India. A version very similar to the one above can also be read on the Online Waldorf Library which is adapted from a book titled Tales From A Taiwan Kitchen published in 1976. This one has lasted at least quite a while and traveled pretty far.

Mingmei Yip from Hong Kong inspired by her father’s bedtime stories also wrote an account in a book titled Chinese Children’s Favorite Stories where none of the fish die and it is explained that they can try again each year. Her story is also one of the ones that tie itself into China’s flood legend.

There is no single correct version of any story.

Dragon Face Tattoo By David Sena, photograph by Mike.

Just because the story is for children also should not make it any less uniquely important to it’s culture. Children’s stories typically embody a societies hopes for a better future, as well as it’s base values they wish to pass on to future generations.

Despite it’s variations, the key unifying themes of these stories are perseverance, and the ideal that with hard work, anyone can become great, become a dragon.

The idea that anyone can become strong with hard work is in fact, an ideal that the Pokemon anime as a whole pushes a lot.

“lǐ yú tiào lóng mén” (鲤鱼跳龙门) is a traditional Chinese saying which means “The carp has leapt over the dragons gate.” It has been used to praise those who pass their college entrance exams, it’s said to have also been used during the time of the Imperial examinations.

The imperial entrance exams. (Public domain)

Over 2,000 years ago there were imperial examinations required to become an administrator of China…. regular people were allowed to take these exams as well, not just the elites, (which was radical at the time even though there were some rules which excluded women, slaves, and children of prostitutes among a few other rules related to the idea of being ‘worthy and upright’).

Technically one can also retake the imperial exam as many times as they like, but the brutally small acceptance rate (sometimes less than 1%) as well as the handicaps of those coming from households which could not afford early schooling among other benefits would have still contributed to a bleak and stressful worldview among many of those who aspired to be administrators. Many of those who did dare to try in fact did not pass the entire process until they were in their 40s (Ancient History Encyclopedia). Nonetheless there are clear parallels between many of the carp legends and the reality of aspiring imperial examination passers… and aspiring college-goers today around the world.

Kids day was also celebrated by the Pokemon characters in the 53rd episode of the anime, where they literally have Magikarp and Gyarados based koinobori (among other water types).

Japan has a similar proverb to China’s for the fish leaping over the dragon’s gate: “koi no taki-nobori,” which refers to the story of Koi fish becoming dragons after conquering a waterfall. When you take the ‘taki’ away from ‘taki-nobori,’ the meaning changes from waterfall to a banner which flows through wind. The koinobori (‘koi-nobori‘) literally translates to a koi banner, these colorful streamers are the icon of Children’s day in Japan on May 5th.

Children’s day, sometimes refereed to as kids day depending on the translation, is a holiday meant to celebrate children and the families who raise them.

Koinobori at Chizu, Tottori. Submitted to wikipedia by 663highland. License summary: CC BY 2.5

One of the best known traditions for children’s day is to hang one koinobori outside the house for each member of the family, a large black one for the father, a red one for the mother, and a smaller one for each child. This practice symbolizes a hope that the kids will grow to be brave and courageous like the Koi who conquered the waterfall, a symbol that has also historically been associated with the Samurai.

It used to be called boys day but the story behind that is traditionally there were two separate holidays, one for boys and one for girls. In 1948 when the holiday traditionally known as Boys Day was designated as a national holiday it’s name was changed to Children’s Day to include girls as well. Needless to say this confused many people who had been celebrating both holidays since before 1948. To this day some still refer to the Children’s Day holiday as Boys Day, while Girl’s Day is celebrated on March 3rd despite it not being an official national holiday. However despite a few disagreements it’s becoming increasingly common for girls to be included in children’s day by hanging koinobori for them as well.

Photograph taken by Hal S.

These stories have clearly had a strong impact on these societies and even around the world.

Koi fish. (Public domain)

It’s wide influence can be seen through the popularity of expensive Koi ponds, relatively more affordable symbolic tattoos, and among more of the less affluent by looking at the consumption of it’s associated media. Besides my final conclusion regarding Pokemon’s interpretation coming up, there has even been a 51 episode long original Chinese cartoon series known as The Adventures of Little Carp. This full-length TV-series iteration of the legend has made it’s way around the world, (almost everywhere except the USA it seems like).

The Adventures Of Little Carp is a Chinese TV series for kids that had even become significant enough to be aired in english on a British television channel’s China Hour, which can now be viewed for free here on their website.

Unfortunately due to the Wikipedia page being incomplete I could not find a full list of languages it has been translated into, but based on the words of people reminiscing about watching the show in such-and-such language via YouTube comments it seems to have been at some point dubbed in Hindi (a particularly popular version since more than half of the comments are requesting it in Hindi), Arabic, and even Tagalog (a Philippines language).

That last one is a mood.

Everybody loves a good underdog story, and while not everybody in the USA knew about the carp legend while playing or watching Pokemon, if the memes are any indication we have certainty still caught on to the heart of the story. Careful who you call weak in middle school and all that.

Perhaps one of the most interesting expressions of this occurred when the official Pokemon twitter account posted a tweet saying how useless Magikarp is… only for many fans to immediately reply in defense of Magikarp.

A Koi on a float during the Gion Festival in Kyoto, photograph taken by Chris Gladis.

To conclude with a final note regarding the specific Pokemon episode in question, and the species of fish originally seen to spark the legend;

Another detail from the Sanqin ji you may or may not have noticed is the carp are said to have gathered at the Dragons Gate during a specific time: “in the third spring month every year,” again quoting from Ruben Wen’s translation on Quora. In the Chinese calendar this would be the month which corresponds to our month of May.

There has been some speculation as to what particular species of fish was originally seen swimming up the waterfall on the Yellow River to spark the inspiration for the original myth… some seem to speculate that it was a completely different fish mistaken for a carp. This would make sense for the Sanqin Ji and similar versions of the legend because the oddly specific timing suggests that they are swimming upriver to lay eggs like Salmon do…. but carp don’t swim upstream seasonally to lay their eggs in the same spot each year the same way salmon do.

Some fish, including carp, do however, like to swim against a current because their gills can collect more oxygen that way…

A whole new meaning to the phrase “Just keep swimming”

which means they have a tendency to swim upriver because it is literally easier for them to breathe while they are going against the elements. (Harvard Magazine)

The Common Carp and Koi fish native to Asia have been observed by many people to like swimming upstream, it’s just a thing fish do even if they don’t do it for spawning. (2) (3) (4)

So while it’s very possible that some other species of fish swimming upstream during a particular time of the year to lay their eggs had inspired many of the Dragons Gate stories… surely seeing carp swimming up waterfalls on occasion would have also stirred the imagination of many storytellers as well. This clip on YouTube of various fish & carps literally jumping up waterfalls is pretty impressive to watch.

Pokemon seems to blend the idea of the scientific and mythical explanations for the fish swimming upriver. The scientist accompanying Ash and crew in the anime specifies that all the Magikarp were born on the Island… but the fish are not shown coming back to lay more eggs, they are shown swimming up the waterfall for the sole purpose of becoming stronger… and evolving into Gyarados during a particular time at night in the lake at the top of the waterfall.

Myth and science share a common goal: to explain the mysteries of the world. It’s no wonder that scientists play a significant role in even the most mystical events of the Pokemon universe.

Although fish in real life do not literally turn into dragons, our ancient ancestors did observe that fish seem to counter-intuitively become stronger when swimming upriver…

which we now know is a result of their biology, because they do become stronger when battling against the elements and gathering more oxygen. Our ancestors recognized that we could learn a valuable lesson from fish, a lesson that lives on in the stories they passed down to this day.

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Related: Gyarados: The Chinese Dragon?

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Further reading on mythology:

Handbook of Chinese Mythology – Available at some public libraries, a fantastic guide for beginners to mythology in general (there’s nothing about the Dragons Gate legend in particular though).

Handbook of Japanese Mythology – Same as above but for Japanese mythology.

Flood Myths of Early China – The free preview provides a good amount of information.

Legends say China began in a great flood. Scientists just found evidence that the flood was real. – Washington Post article.

Further viewing on mythology:

Extra Mythology Playlist – A collection of videos about various myths from around the world.


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