Jiaoren and Ningyo: A Comparative Study of Chinese and Japanese Merfolk and Their Environmental Significance For Climate Change

Jun 28, 2023 | Art Insights

Written By: Chiara Atoyebi

Japanese Mermaid. Photo in the Public Domain

As climate change continues to grow as a critical concern, the effect on the planet’s oceans is becoming more evident and cannot be overlooked. The marine ecosystem faces severe challenges, from the bleaching of coral reefs to the alarming depletion of fish stocks. With its extensive coastline and economic reliance on maritime industries, these changes significantly affect China. However, it is not an isolated case; the ramifications of marine degradation are felt globally. 

In an effort to bring awareness to the effects of Climate Change on our global waterways, artists are revisiting Chinese and Japanese folklore featuring mermaids, known as 鲛人 Jiaoren(Chinese) and Ningyo (Japanese), respectively, and using them to reinterpret and engage in contemporary environmental discourse. The idea of conjuring help from the ethereal guardians of the oceans—may surreptitiously prove or disprove our belief in the mystical.

Traditionally depicted as mystical beings with an intrinsic connection to the ocean, the Jiaoren serves as an allegory for marine stewardship. However, unlike the traditionally human-fish hybrid depiction of mermaids, Ningyo is often described as having a more varied appearance, often with a human face but a fish-like body, and sometimes incorporating features of other animals such as monkeys or dragons. They are generally not as human-like or beautiful as the mermaids seen in Western cultures.

Although distinct differences make these two entities unique, the myths and legends of Merfolk are a staple in various cultures around the world. 

Introduction to Jiaoren

Photo in the Public Domain.

Jiaoren, often referred to as “scaly people,” are mythical creatures from Chinese folklore that have a human’s upper body and a fish’s lower body. They are renowned for their exceptional weaving skills and are said to produce fabrics of extraordinary beauty. It is believed that their tears can transform into precious pearls. Jiaoren is usually associated with purity, beauty, and the protection of marine life.

Introduction to Ningyo

Contrasting with the beauty associated with Jiaoren, the Ningyo from Japanese folklore is depicted more as a creature than a human, often described as a cross between a fish and a monkey. Ningyos may not be renowned for their physical appearance, but, they possess an enigmatic charm. Legend has it that consuming their flesh can bestow longevity or even immortality. However, capturing a Ningyo is typically viewed as a negative sign, believed to bring bad luck or inclement weather.


Physical Attributes

Jiaoren and Ningyo are considered aquatic creatures with connections to merfolk. While Jiaoren is depicted as beautiful beings with human and fish characteristics, Ningyo is less human-like and often depicted with a grotesque appearance akin to a mixture of fish and other creatures.

Wang Qi 1530 – 1615; Wang Siyi fl. 1607-1609 – ; 潭濱黄; 晟東曙 (re-proofing edd.) (1609) Public Domain.

Relationship with the Sea

Jiaoren are respected for their peaceful relationship with the ocean and are considered protectors of marine life. They live best in clean and tranquil waters. On the other hand, catching Ningyo is commonly believed to bring misfortune, especially to the sea, as it may result in storms and other disasters.

Cultural Significance

Jiaoren are known for their connection to purity and their role in protecting marine environments. Additionally, they are skilled weavers with a strong connection to arts and craftsmanship. On the other hand, Ningyo are primarily associated with their mystical ability to grant longevity through their flesh and serve as a warning against disrupting the natural order.


The Jiaoren protects marine life and symbolizes the importance of clean water. They remind us to live sustainably and in harmony with nature.

Japanese mermaid (ningyo). Coiffed with nihongami hairstyle of the Edo Period.― Santō Kyōden Hakoiri musume menya ningyō (1791). Photo in the Public Domain.


Ningyo serves as a cautionary symbol. The belief that capturing them brings misfortune can be seen as a warning against overfishing and disrupting marine ecosystems. The storms and calamities associated with them are reminiscent of the natural disasters that can result from environmental imbalance.


Jiaoren and Ningyo are both merfolk with distinct themes and messages. Jiaoren represents the protection and harmony of marine life through their elegance and guardianship. At the same time, the Ningyo serves as a cautionary tale against disturbing the natural balance due to their mystical traits and the misfortunes associated with capturing them. As environmental protection continues to gain significance, these mythical creatures can serve as cultural symbols that motivate us to safeguard our oceans and natural resources.