Episode 55: Mermaid

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The deep waters. The mysteries. Today we are going to talk about the mythical creature from the deep waters– mermaid or merman in Chinese mythology. Interestingly, this aquatic creature with the upper body of a human and the tail of a fish appear in many cultures including Europe, Africa and Asia.

The mermaid from the west that most people know is a beautiful female with long hair. By the way, I used to think sirens are a kind of mermaid. But they are actually half human half bird creature. There are mermen in the west which are a male half fish creature usually depicted as unattractive. So what are the mermaid or mermen in Chinese mythology like?


The earliest record of fish like people can be found in the book Classic of Mountains and Seas 山海经, dating from the 4th century BC. There is a nation called DiRen Nation 氐人国 where people there have fish tails instead of feet. In the book SouShenJi搜神记from Jin Dynasty 晋朝, it says, in the South Sea, there are mermaid and mermen 鲛人who live in the water like fish. When they cry, their tears become pearls. In the book ShuYiJi 述异记, it says, the fish-like people are called QuanXian 泉先 or QuanKe 泉客. They make sheer silk materials for clothing which doesn’t get wet. The silk material costs a lot to get and it is as white as frost. These books didn’t mention the fish-like people are mermaids which are female. However, producing silk materials and crying are a little bit towards the female side. In the book TaipingYuLan 太平御览, it says, there was a fish-like person coming out of the sea and lived in a family’s house. He or she offered the silk material for the host to sell to buy food. Before leaving the family, he or she wept and filled a plate with pearls as gifts.


I am always thinking why mermaids or mermen have human head and fish tail but not the other way around? The famous painting called The Collective Invention is by Rene Magritte actually depicts a fish head human lying on the shore.


山海经 Classic of Mountains and Seas

述异记 ShuYiJi

太平御览 TaipingYuLan

The Collective Inventiond is by Rene Magritte

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