By Qin Sun Stubis
In the Orient, the dragon is the symbol of absolute power. During the great dynasties of China, only emperors were allowed to own and use anything decorated with dragons, whether they were carvings, embroidery, or paintings.
Anyone who visited the Forbidden City in Beijing was treated to a visual feast of those glamorous, heavenly beasts who adorned emperors’ thrones and royal garments, and sat on the roof guarding the Imperial palace.
By comparison, carp are humble little earth beings, far removed from power and politics. They live a sheltered life, swimming quietly in muddy waters and are, at best, used as decorative fish in carefully landscaped ponds. Those not lucky enough to be chosen to live simply because of their looks, end up on plates, victims to such Chinese culinary tastes as carp belly or carp tail in a spicy brown sauce.
So, it may surprise you to learn that these earthly, finned swimmers are actually kin to dragons. According to legend, carp are brave and strong, swimming against currents toward a mythical waterfall. When they got close enough, they threw themselves high into the air to get to the top of the falls, where the gate to the Dragon Kingdom was hidden.
Many carp tried to enter the Dragon Kingdom, but few succeeded. For those who did, the rewards were astronomical: They were instantly transformed into dragons with heavenly powers. Only their bodies, permanently covered with scales, remind us of their humble past.
For thousands of years, this story about ordinary fish changing into dragons has been passed down from generation to generation. Hence the Chinese saying, “Carp jump over the gate to the dragon kingdom,” which most Chinese learn at a young age as an inspirational life lesson to work hard like a carp and overcome obstacles in the hope that one day they, too, might find the key to success and transform themselves from the ordinary to the extraordinary
In some ways, this carp’s tale offers a hope-filled promise to all: Believe in success through adversity, courage, and heroism. To this day, I still remember how when I was little, my mother spent her last yuan buying and making carp for New Year’s Eve. She cooked it to perfection and placed it on her finest china as a centerpiece. It wasn’t just a tasty fish dish on the table, but a visual reminder too, inspiring us to work hard in the years to come and to swim closer to the gate of the Dragon Kingdom.
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A longtime columnist of ours, Qin lives in Bethesda, MD.