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Said the Sea Turtle to a Frog in a Well

Origin of the idiom 井底之蛙


Epoch Times Staff
Created: January 26, 2013 Last Updated: February 7, 2013
Related articles: China » Culture
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A sea turtle swims in the depth of the sea among beautiful fish, shellfish, and coral reefs. (Tarik Tinazay/AFP/Getty Images)

A sea turtle swims in the depth of the sea among beautiful fish, shellfish, and coral reefs. (Tarik Tinazay/AFP/Getty Images)

One day, a frog that lived at the bottom of a shallow well spoke in high spirits to a turtle of the Eastern Sea.

“My life in the well is really a joy! When I jump out of the well, I climb onto the outside rail. When I return, I rest in a crack inside the well.

“As I swim, the well water covers my armpits but my head rests above it. Playing in the mud, I bury my feet in it.

“Look at the cockles, crabs, and toads around me who live as happily as I do. Furthermore, this well is my own territory, serving my own enjoyment. What a wonderful life this is. Why don’t you come in to see for yourself?”

At the frog’s invitation, the turtle prepared to enter the well. But before he could move his left leg, his right leg was blocked by the well’s rail. He retreated to the side of the well, and started to tell the frog about the sea.

“How big is the sea? Even 1,000 miles would not describe its breadth; 10,000 feet would not describe its depth.

“During the time of the Great Yu [of the Xia Dynasty], within 10 years there were 9 years of floods yet the level of the sea did not seem to rise.

“During the time of Tang [of the Shang Dynasty], within eight years there were seven years of drought yet the seashore did not seem to recede.

“Not to be affected by the passage of time or the wax and wane of the tide, thus is the great joy of living in the Eastern Sea.”

Hearing about the sea, the frog was shocked. It began to sense the smallness of its own life in the well.

Broadening One’s Horizons

This is the story of the Chinese idiom “the frog at the bottom of a well” (井底之蛙, pronounced jǐng dǐ zhī wā), which describes a person who is narrow-minded or possesses shallow knowledge.

The story originates from a passage in a chapter titled “Autumn Waters” (秋水) in the book Zhuang Zi (莊子).

Self-righteousness and conceit are often the result of closed-mindedness and ignorance.

In the passage, the Spirit of the Northern Sea referred to the frog at the bottom of a well when speaking to He Bo, the Spirit of the Yellow River, who thought there was nothing equal to the river where he lived until he beheld the vastness of the great sea.

The Spirit of the Northern Sea said: “There is no way to discuss the ocean with a frog at the bottom of a well, due to the limitations of its living environment.

“There is no way to explain ice to summer insects, which only know about the conditions of their own season.

“There is no way to speak about the Dao (道) with those with limited views, who are restrained by the teaching they have received.

“Today, only because you have beheld the great sea are you able to recognize your own ignorance and insignificance. Thus it is possible to talk with you about great principles.”

People’s practical environments limit their thinking and understanding, and self-righteousness and conceit are often the result of closed-mindedness and ignorance.

This story advises people that only by broadening their horizons and letting go of their preconceived notions can they liberate their minds to accept and understand higher principles.

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