jǐng dǐ zhī wā
Literally, a “frog in the well”. Someone who has a limited experience of the world and therefore sees things from a narrow perspective.
The story, as the philosopher Zhuangzi told it
This idiom comes from a fable in an Outer Chapter Of Zhuangzi, a foundational Taoist text written c. 4th Century BC. It takes its name from its putative author Zhuangzi, one the most influential Chinese philosophers in history.
The fable is set in autumn. River God stands on one side of the Yellow River as it rises, and it appears wider and larger. It widens so much that he can no longer see the cattle on the other side clearly. River God beams with pride, proud of what he has done, thinking that all beauty under the heavens ends with him. Then, he follows the currents, until he reaches the North Sea. He sees the vast, boundless sea, and realises how small he is. The North Sea then tells him: “A frog in a well cannot speak of the sea, trapped by its circumstance.”
This is the first time “frog in the well” is mentioned. Towards the end of the chapter, the entire parable of the frog is presented as story within a story:
A frog who stays in a dried-up well meets a sea turtle one day, and tells him: ‘I’m so happy! I can hop around the edge of the well when I want to play, and rest in the spaces of the missing bricks when I get tired. The water in the well can reach my gills and my legs, while the mud can reach the top of my feet. I have seen the little blood worms, little crabs, and little tadpoles around me, and none of them are as free as I am! I get all the water in the well to myself, and can jump around and squat in it as I like. This is truly the greatest pleasure in life. Why don’t you come in and have a look?’
Before the sea turtle’s left foot can enter the well, his right foot is already stuck. Hesitating a little, he pulls out his right foot, and tells the frog about the East Sea: ‘Its vastness spans beyond a thousand miles, and its depth runs deeper than 8,000 feet. During the time of Yu the Great, there were floods in nine years out of 10, yet that didn’t make the sea any fuller. During the time of Tang of Shang, there were droughts in seven years out of eight, yet that didn’t make the tides recede any farther. The sea won’t change because of the passage of time, and it won’t swell or ebb because of the volume of rain. This is what makes the East Sea so interesting!
When the frog in the well hears this, he is flabbergasted. His worldview is shattered.
The story is often retold in children’s books with these embellishments:
- The well is described as a much nastier place to live in.
- The well is a deep well. In the original text, it was likely a shallow well, since the frog is able to hop around the edge of it.
These changes may lead to a slightly different reading of the fable.
While the original text makes clear that the sea is more vast than the well, it is less moralistic and does not necessarily say that the sea is a better place to live in. The lesson is about avoiding narrow-mindedness, and being aware of our own ignorance.
Also, the shallow well of the original text suggests that the frog is ignorant by choice – he chooses to stay in the well. Technically, he could hop away and explore the wider world if he wanted to. With a deep well, he seems stuck, and a victim of circumstance.
A Japanese variant of the proverb, “the frog in the well knows nothing of the sea”, can be found in the Oxford Dictionary Of Proverbs. Perhaps the English idiom that comes closest to “frog in the well” is “country bumpkin”.
This is part of an ongoing series on Chinese idioms. Discover more here.