Goldfish: Gem of the Orient, Pride of American Aquarists
Goldfish have long been cherished by many different cultures throughout the centuries, but they still have a pesky reputation to shake. Considered by many aquarists and non-aquarists alike as  messy “junk” fish that belong in a bowl rather than an aquarium, these robust fish have nevertheless found their niche with groups of aquarists who consider themselves goldfish freaks. Goldfish fans pursue their hobby with a fervor and devotion that rivals any other fish hobbyists.

A glimpse into the availability and history of the many different sizes, shapes and colors of these fish can sway the most stubborn tropical fan toward goldfish freak-dom. If the goldfish you remember are the unlucky, small feeder fish or the unwilling prizes for participants in county fair games, the variety of fish available can be mind-blowing. The history and development of these fish lead you to wonder how they ever wound up in such humble positions.

The first mentions of goldfish are found in ancient Chinese records during the Tsin Dynasty. These indicate the first goldfish were discovered around 300 A.D. The cultivation of these fish reaches back close to 1,000 years when crucian carp were domesticated. These carp were bred for the nobility’s courtyard ponds during the Sung Dynasty.

 These long, flat-sided carp were quite plain compared with the exotic varieties of goldfish available today. But as the carp in the ponds continued to breed, their golden offspring began to exhibit many beautiful colors and patterns. From these simple carp, new varieties with double tails, flowing fins and protruding eyes were produced. From the careful selection and hybridization of these fish, the Chinese formed a new hobby -- goldfish keeping.

Since the fish were kept in ponds or tubs, they were bred for beautiful or unique traits that were easily viewed from above. So popular was the species in China, and especially in Peking, that a goldfish pool was established for use of commercial breeding in the city during the second Chin Dynasty. During the course of the Ming Dynasty, the fish reached such a height of popularity that they often found an abode in clay aquariums in Chinese homes.
The Japanese took an interest in the goldfish hobby in 1500. They were quite enamored with these fish, and Koriyana became one of the most famous goldfish breeding centers.

Goldfish hobbyists have the goldfish breeding of the Chinese and Japanese, and others that developed over the centuries, to thank for the Fantail, Veiltail, Globe-Eyed and transparent-scaled varieties available today.
Many of these varieties are traceable as far back as the late 16th and early 17th centuries.

As trade flourished with the English, Portuguese, French and Dutch during the 18th century, goldfish became popular pets and fashionable gifts in England, France and Germany. In 1870, goldfish first came to America, with 1889 marking the first goldfish farm, established in Maryland.

It is only natural for those breeding these fish and developing new varieties to wish to display the results of their work, and goldfish shows were the outcome of these wishes. Osaka, Japan was the site of the first goldfish show in 1862. The British Aquarists Association in London organized the first show in the West in 1926.

 Although most aquarists realize the wide variety of goldfish available, the exact recorded numbers of recognized varieties vary between 100 to 125 to 300. Despite these remarkable numbers, if the fish are left to breed at will in ponds, they will revert to their wild ancestors in very few generations.

Delving into the actual different varieties of goldfish can become difficult as the complexities of these seemingly simple fish are realized. Each goldfish can differ from another in many distinct ways, including differences in the types of scales, body structure, eyes, finnage, head growths and colors.

The term “goldfish” seems somewhat inappropriate as you learn more about all of the different “colors of gold.”  Fish may be solid colored or feature an arrangement of hues in red, white, gold, blue, chocolate, black, pale yellow and the wild-type color of olive green. A fish will change colors throughout its lifespan, and the brown fish you have one year may be a deep orange-red the next.

These colors can take on a whole new appearance depending on the fish’s scale type. The scales may be metallic, with a shiny appearance; matte, with a non-reflective, flat or skin-like appearance; or nacreous, with both metallic and matte scales. Calico, which classifies a goldfish with three or more colors on its body, is considered a part of the nacreous group.

Some of the more exotic breeds have features that can be detrimental to the fish’s ability to swim and compete with some of its more streamlined, less exotic cousins, so choose tankmates carefully.

An important factor in determining the compatibility between the different varieties of goldfish is body type. The single-tail, flat-bodied goldfish are among the hardiest. The second type, which has a round or egg-shaped body, is divided into two groups -- those with and those without a dorsal fin.

 Of all of the flat-bodied goldfish, the Common Goldfish is considered the hardiest of all. With its long, sleek body, it is the closest cousin to its wild ancestors. The Common Goldfish’s fins are not especially long, but very functional. These fish are fast swimmers and are very competitive. When they are young, they tend to be a dull bluish-gray color, but turn to a metallic orange as they mature.

Of the different varieties, only one was developed in the United States -- the Comet. This variety features longer flowing fins and a more streamlined body than its Common cousin, while still retaining much of the hardiness goldfish are noted for having. Hugo Murkett and the U.S. Fisheries Department first bred the Comet around 1881. This variety is also an aggressive swimmer and feeder.

There is little difference between the Tancho Singletail and the Comet. The bright red cap and silvery-white body of the Tancho set it apart.

The Shubunkins, both the Bristol and the London, are variations in color of the common goldfish. What makes this breed of fish distinguishable is its nacreous scales. It is primarily bred for its beautiful patches of red, orange, yellow, sky blue, violet, brown or black which are scattered over a base of blue. Other common names for this variety are calico or harlequin. A much longer tail fin sets the Bristol Shubunkins apart from the London Shubunkins.

Wakins are the common goldfish of Japan. These fish are bluish in color when young, but they will grow to a deep red. This breed is very much like the common Western goldfish, except for its double tail fin. Wakins still swim fast enough to be kept with single-tailed fish.

A very old race of goldfish, the Jikin, also called the peacock tail or butterfly tail, is as pleasing to view from above as it is to view from the side. The color on the fins is solid red, while the body is solid white. It is very similar to the Wakin. These hardy fish are not as easily found as Common or Comet goldfish.

 The round-bodied goldfish can be found in an unbelievable variety of different tail lengths and shapes, body shapes, eye types and head shapes.

The most commonly seen variety of this type is the Fantail. Each year, more Fantails are purchased than any other double-tail breed. This type should have long, flowing fins and no headgrowth. In the best specimens, the tail should not be joined at any juncture, but only at the caudal peduncle.

Ryukins, round-bodied fish with a highly developed shoulder hump, are a very popular variety. Hardy and colorful, these fish are considered as good beginner goldfish. The Ryukin is known as “Onaga,” meaning long-tailed, in Japan. Japanese Ryukins typically have deeper humps than Chinese Ryukins, which are slimmer fish with smaller humps. Telescope-eyed Ryukins are commonly called Demekins.

The graceful Veiltail is one of the most exquisitely beautiful goldfish. They are difficult to find, but the flowing, square cut, double tail of this fish along with its delicate dorsal fin make it well worth the search. Veiltails need special care and are best suited to experienced hobbyists. The long fins of this fish are especially susceptible to ammonia damage. These fish require extremely clean water with little current, and a lot of room for their fins with very little in the way of tank ornaments or plants. Many breeds of goldfish, including Orandas, Telescopes, Moors and Pearlscales, have had the Veiltail’s lovely finnage bred into them.

Many goldfish enthusiasts consider Orandas their favorites. Their plump bodies, flowing fins and rounded headgrowth add up to make an unusual and appealing fish. They need very clean water to keep the headgrowth and fins in good condition.

 Perhaps no other round-bodied goldfish are as eye-catching as the Pearlscale. Their overly plump bodies and distinctive scales are well worth a second glance. Good quality Pearlscales feature a hard raised area, usually white, in the center of each scale. The Pearlscale’s tail is square-cut like a veiltail, but much shorter.

At first glance, the bulging eyes of the Telescope or Globe-Eyed fish are quite shocking, but take a closer look and you will discover a friendly, comical face. The shape of the eyes varies from fish to fish, but both of the eyes on the same fish should be the same size and shape. The Telescope has many variations in eye type, color, finnage and scale type. These fish can be found with nacreous, metallic, pearl or matt scales. One of the most commonly seen forms of this type is the solid black matte variety, the Moor. Moors are often called “black moors,” but since all moors are black, the name moor is adequate.

Less is certainly more for the hobbyists who favor the exotic goldfish. These round-bodied fish are missing something -- a dorsal fin. The exotics exhibit an assortment of unique traits. This makes these fish more interesting, but does make them less efficient swimmers, so choose tankmates with care.

Ranchus and Lionheads are two very popular dorsalless breeds of goldfish. They are similar in appearance in many ways with both missing the dorsal fins, and both displaying headgrowths. A careful study of the two types uncovers their differences, as the Ranchu’s back displays a sharp downward angle near its double tail. The Lionhead’s back is straighter, but it still slightly curves down toward its butterfly tail. The Lionhead’s head growth is much different from an Oranda’s. Usually the Oranda’s growth is limited to the top of the head, while the Lionhead’s growth also covers the face.

Another dorsalless fish features a little something extra; or rather, two something extras. The short, round, boxy Pompons’ nasal septum or narial flaps are enlarged and folded so that they resemble the fluffy tops of a child’s knitted hat. Older Pompons will also sport a small head growth. Several other breeds of goldfish also have pompons, including Orandas, Lionheads and Hanafusa (Pompons with dorsal fins).

 The ceaseless heavenward gaze of the Celestial has Chinese fables behind it. One fable mentions that the fish were developed to honor a Chinese Emperor who favored the fish that continuously watched him. The Celestials’ upturned eyes are encased in a hard covering. The eyes should look in the same direction and be the same size. Floating foods and noncompetitive tankmates are essential for these dorsalless, torpedo-shaped fish.

A variety requiring even more specialized care is the Bubble-Eye. This unique fish has a large, fluid-filled sac, or bubble under each eye. The bubbles wobble as this torpedo-shaped, dorsalless fish swims. The sacs can vary in size and thickness. Take care to keep this fish’s tank free of any objects that could puncture or harm the fluid-filled sacs, and avoid strong currents in the tank. To move the fish, avoid netting or hand-scooping. Instead, gently guide the fish into a bag or bowl.

The breeds and varieties described are just a sampling of what is available to the goldfish hobbyist. It is easy to see how goldfish enthusiasts can stay captivated with their hobby for a lifetime.


1. DeVito, Carlo, with Gregory Skomal. The Goldfish: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy, Healthy Pet. Howell Book House, Simon & Schuster Macmillan Company, New York, New York. 1996.

2. Glass, Spencer. Goldfish: Keeping and Breeding Them in Captivity. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune, New Jersey. 1996.

3. Goldfish Society of America. The Official Guide to Goldfish. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune, New Jersey. 1996 Edition.

 4. Sands, Dr. David. Goldfish. SMITHMARK Publishers, New York, New York. 1996.

5. Sweeney, Mary E. A Basic Book of Goldfish Look-And-Learn. T.F.H. Publications, Inc., Neptune, New Jersey. 1994.

Published in Tropical Fish Hobbyist
February, 1998
Written By Bethany Waldrop Keiper
Do not copy or reproduce without permission of TFH.
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