Merfolk or merpeople are legendary water-dwelling human-like beings. They are attested in folklore and mythology throughout the ages in various parts of the world.

Female merfolk may be referred to as mermaids, although in a strict sense mermaids are confined to beings who are half-woman and half-fish in appearance. Male merfolk are called mermen. Depending on the story, they can be described as ugly or beautiful.



The jiaoren (蛟人 "flood dragon people" or 鮫人 "shark people")[a] that appear in medieval writings are considered to be references to merfolk.[2][3]

Several types of beings which may fall under "merfolk" are mentioned in the Shanhaijing 山海经(Classic of Mountains and Seas) dating to the 4th century BC.

This mythical southern mermaid or merman is recorded in Ren Fang [zh]'s Shuyi ji [zh] "Records of Strange Things" (early 6th century CE).[5]

In the midst of the South Sea are the houses of the kău (Chinese: ; pinyin: jiao; Wade–Giles: chiao[6]) people who dwell in the water like fish, but have not given up weaving at the loom. Their eyes have the power to weep, but what they bring forth is pearls.[7]

Similar passages appear in other texts such as the Bowuzhi (博物志)(c. 290 CE).[8]

These aquatic people supposedly spun a type of raw silk called jiaoxiao 蛟綃 "mermaid silk" or jiaonujuan 蛟女絹 "mermaid woman's silk". Schafer equates this with sea silk, the rare fabric woven from byssus filaments produced by Pinna "pen shell" mollusks.[9] Chinese myths also recorded this "silk" coming from shuiyang 水羊 "water sheep" or shuican 水蠶 "water silkworm".

In popular cultureEdit

See alsoEdit

  • Naiad, female spirits of Greek mythology
  • Nixie, water spirits of Germanic (especially Scandinavian) folklore
  • Rusalka, female spirits of Slavic folklore

Explanatory notesEdit

  1. ^ The conception of them seems to have shifted from half-reptilian to half-fish in later periods.[1]


  1. ^ Nakano (1983), p. 143.
  2. ^ Sugimoto, Akiko (2006). Translated by William Wetherall. "Chasing the Moon (Part 9)" 追月記. Journal of the American Oriental Society. 42 (3): 40. Jiaoren (鮫人 mythical fish-human, mermaid, merman). website
  3. ^ Nakano (1983), p. 143; Matsuoka (1982), p. 49
  4. ^ Nakano (1983), p. 140.
  5. ^ Ren Fang, Shuyi Ji, second volume.:[4] "南海中有鮫人室水居如魚不廢機織其眼泣則出珠晉木𤣥虚海賦云天琛水怪鮫人之室" (translation quoted below).
  6. ^ Schafer 1967, pp. 217–218
  7. ^ Schafer 1967, p. 220
  8. ^ Zhang Hua 張華. "Book 2, "Foreigners" section; 卷之二「異人」". Bowuzhi 博物志 – via Wikisource. 南海外有鮫人,水居如魚,不廢織績,其眼能泣珠。
  9. ^ Schafer 1967, p. 221
  • Matsuoka, Masako 松岡正子 (1982-12-01). "Ningyo densetsu: Sengaikyō wo jiku to shite" 「人魚傳説」―『山海經』を軸として― [Mermaid Legends Told Mainly in Shan-hai jing]. Journal of Waseda University Society of Chinese Literature. 8: 49–66.
  • Nakano, Miyoko 中野美代子 (1983). Chūgoku no yōkai 中国の妖怪. Iwanami Shoten. pp. 140–143. ISBN 9784004202356.
  • Schafer, Edward H. (1967). The Vermillion Bird: T'ang Images of the South. University of California Press.

See alsoEdit