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There may be as many fish counters in existence as all other types of counter put together: the most common type, with the "billing birds", must have been produced in truly huge numbers in a variety of sizes. There was a very clear variation in the quality of Mother-of-pearl used, and also in the care that was put into the decoration. They vary, as do all counters, from small, thin, hastily-produced counters to large, thick and beautiful artefacts.

Fishes do not normally have borders and can therefore be more difficult to date precisely. There were variations in the shape but these may be quite subtle. The style of decoration is key. The earliest fish counters appear to have no scales: this was true only for a short time. Fishes were originally just one denomination in sets of counters up to around 1740. Some of the earliest sets appear to have consisted of round counters for higher value, and fishes for lower value in the game.

Double fishes are rare. They seem to have been produced early on, only in small numbers. They are easily damaged - tails break off - and perhaps because of this they were never produced in large numbers. Most fishes are flat Mother-of-pearl, but there are examples of three-dimensional fishes ("fat" fishes) which must have been expensive to produce.

It is claimed that the existence of fishes is due to a misunderstanding. The French for a counter is "fiche": some authorities suggest that French traders in Canton asked for orders of "fiches" and were given fishes instead. Who knows?

The dates suggested are necessarily very approximate.

Fish 1

This is one of the earliest types of fishes. No scales and quite large (3"). Beautiful quality of mother-of-pearl. This type was often used for armorial fishes (see armorial fish page). Certainly ...

Fish 2

A smaller, plain fish (2 3/8 inches) with a rather stylised tail. Circa 1740

Fish 3

One of the earliest fish types with scales. 2 1/2 inches. circa 1750.

Fish 4

Unusual early fish with patchy scaling and a rather appealing look on its face! Circa 1740

Fish 5

Unusual early fish with no scales yet with a roundel containing a Chinese person holding lotus seed-heads.

Fish 6

This is the one we all know and love! Roundel with the billing-birds and with scales. This became the standard shape and remained so. Probably produced from around 1770 onwards into the 1800's.

Fish 7

Variant on a theme with a river scene instead of the 'billing-birds'. It is thought that this is in fact a representation of the 'hongs' or 'factories' on the Pearl River, Canton. Rather unusual.

Fish 8

Variant on a theme with the 'pagoda' decoration in the roundel instead of the 'billing-birds'. Rather unusual.

Fish 9

Extra large (2 15/16 inches) and beautifully produced fish with the star or flower in a roundel to the reverse. These are not common.

Fish 10

Rare double-fish with the 'billing-birds' in a roundel. Circa 1760.

Fish 11

Rare, early double-fish, circa 1740.

Fish 12

Some fishes were personalised, but this was rare. This one is in an unusual shape with a very broad tail and the initials MAL in a roundel. The monogram was performed in Canton: you know this because ...

Fish 13

Another personalised counter with the initial I orJ in a roundel, again on an unusual shape. A rare counter. these must have been very expensive to buy at the time.

Fish 14

One example of a 'fat fish', 2 3/8 inches long.

Fish 15

Another type, with scales.

Fish 16

A particularly large variation, 2 3/4 inches long.

Fish 17

Finally, a very tactile fish counter, clearly made with a great deal of care.

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