Chinese Stories/The frog of the well

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The frog of the well is a fable by Zhuāng Zǐ, sometimes known as Looking at a sky down in a well.

The story[1]

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"Have you not heard of the frog that lived in the well? It said to the turtle of the Eastern Sea, "I am so happy! I jump about the railings of the well, rest at the crack on the bricks; when I dive into the water, they support my arms and chin; when I scramble in the mud, they bury my feet and toes. I interact with crabs and play with minnows; nobody can compare to me. Furthermore, I dominate the water in this well, and enjoy the joy of being in the well. Isn't it wonderful? Why don't you come down and have a look?" The turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to get in the well, but before his left leg could even enter, his right knee was already stuck. So, it circled around and went back, and told the frog, "A thousand miles cannot describe its vastness; a thousand fathoms cannot measure its depth. In the time of Yu, there were floods nine out of ten years, yet the sea did not increase; in the time of Tang, there were droughts seven out of eight years, yet the cliffs did not decrease. The sea does not change with the passing of time or the amount of water it contains, this is the great joy of the Eastern Sea." When the frog in the well heard this, it was astonished and could not find words to reply."

The Chinese text is a parable known as "The Frog in the Well" attributed to Zhuangzi, a Taoist philosopher. The story has been used to illustrate various themes in Eastern philosophy and its central message is about narrow-mindedness and limited perspective. The frog, having lived its entire life in a well, has a limited perspective of the world, which is challenged when it encounters the turtle from the Eastern Sea.

This parable is widely used in Chinese culture to refer to someone with a limited perspective or a narrow understanding of things. The saying "a frog in a well" (井底之蛙, jǐng dǐ zhī wā) is often used to describe a person with a limited outlook who doesn't know the immensity of the world.

The characters 東海 (dōng hǎi) refer to the Eastern Sea, often used in Chinese literature to refer to the sea to the east of China. This vast body of water is used to contrast with the small well where the frog lives.

The Chinese language often resorts to indirect and metaphorical language, and this parable is rich in such language. For example, the phrases "支腋持颐" (literally "support the armpits and hold the chin") and "没足灭跗" (literally "bury the feet and extinguish the toes") describe the frog's movements in the well, making the small well seem quite comfortable for the frog.

However, when the turtle tries to enter the small well and finds it impossible, it reveals to the frog the vastness of the Eastern Sea, which remains unchanged despite fluctuations in weather over the years. The story concludes with the frog being stunned - a metaphor for someone realizing the limit of their knowledge or perspective. - H.E.S


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The names the frog of the bottom of the well (井底之蛙) and glancing at the sky from the bottom of the well (坐井觀天) were not original titles by Chuang-tzu. The philosopher has given the fable no title. Such titles have been made up by others. In fact, the common interpretation of a frog in a well is incorrect. Back then, the word 井 meant 'trap' (now written as '阱').

Nowadays, both titles have been used as an idiom. The former means a person whose knowledge is so limited that he or she has no idea about anything aside from the world of their own; the latter means the action of being the kind of person mentioned above. Here is an example sentence using both idioms:


Which translates to:

He always shows off his geographical knowledge in front of others, yet he is simply an ignorant frog of the bottom of the well. I guess I'll advise him to stop glancing at the sky from the bottom of the well.


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  1. The original text: