Frog in a Well

I’ve noticed that while we call this blog Frog in a Well, we have never actually posted the story. This is from Burton Watson’s translation of Zhuangzi.

Kung-sun Lung said to Prince Mou of Wei, “When I was young I studied the Way of the former kings, and when I grew older I came to understand the conduct of benevolence and righteousness. I reconciled difference and sameness, distinguished hardness and whiteness, and proved that not so the wisdom of the hundred schools and demolished the arguments of a host of speakers. I believed that I had attained the highest degree of accomplishment. But now I have heard the words of Chuang Tzu and I am bewildered by their strangeness. I don’t know whether my arguments are not as good as his, or whether I am no match for him in understanding. I find now that I can’t even open my beak. May I ask what you advise?”

Prince Mou leaned on his armrest and gave a great sigh, and then he looked up at the sky and laughed, saying, “Haven’t you ever heard about the frog in the caved-in well? He said to the great turtle of the Eastern Sea, ‘What fun I have! I come out and hop around the railing of the well, or I go back in and take a rest in the wall where a tile has fallen out. When I dive in the water, I let it hold me up under the armpits and support my chin, and when I slip about in the mud, I bury my feet in it and let it come up over my ankles. I look around at the mosquito larvae and the crabs and polliwogs and I see that none of them can match me. To have complete command of the water of one whole valley and to monopolize all the joys of a caved-in well—this is the best there is! Why don’t you come some time and see for yourself?’

“But before the great turtle of the Eastern Sea had even gotten his left foot in the well his right knee was already wedged fast. He backed out and withdrew a little, and then began to describe the sea. ‘A distance of a thousand li cannot indicate its greatness; a depth of a thousand fathoms cannot express how deep it is. In the time of Yu there were floods for nine years out of ten, and yet its waters never rose. In the time of T’ang there were droughts for seven years out of eight and yet its shores never receded. Never to alter or shift, whether for and instant or an eternity; never to advance or recede, whether the quantity of water flowing in is great or small—this is the great delight of the Eastern Sea!

“When the frog in the caved-in well heard this, he was dumfounded with surprise, crestfallen, and completely at a loss. Now your knowledge cannot even define the borders of right and wrong, and still you try to see through the words of Chuang Tzu—this is like trying to make a mosquito carry a mountain on its back or a pill bug race across the Yellow River. You will never be up to the task!

He whose understanding cannot grasp these minute and subtle words, but is only fit to win some temporary gain—is he not like the frog in the caved-in well? Chuang Tzu, now—at this very moment he is treading the Yellow Springs or leaping up to the vast blue. To him there is no north or south—in utter freedom he dissolves himself in the four directions and drowns himself in the unfathomable. To him there is no east or west—he begins in the Dark Obscurity and returns to the Great Thoroughfare. Now you come niggling along and try to spy him out or fix some name to him, but this is like using a tube to scan the sky or an awl to measure the depth of the earth—the instrument is too small, never heard about the young boy of Shou-ling who went to learn the Han-tan Walk. He hadn’t mastered what the Hantan people had to teach him when he forgot his old way of walking, so that he had to crawl all the way back home. Now if you don’t get on your way, you’re likely to forget what you knew before and be out of a job!”

Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open and wouldn’t stay closed. His tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth and wouldn’t come down. In the end he broke into a run and fled.


  1. It’s a lovely, lively story, so probably a lot of people either thought of it independently or else adapted it.

    I’d be interested to hear the Taiwanese version. How is it different?

  2. It’s basically the same setup. Frog lives in a well and thinks it’s the world. He brags about the well to a sparrow. The sparrow flies the frog out and the frog is amazed how his view of the world changed. He can’t go back to his simple ways again.

    I can’t help but think it’s based on the mainland story. I think it got changed at some point and I’m curious to see if anyone knows about this alteration.

    1. Interesting!

      The story is also much like the children’s book (though not only for children) by Leo Leoni, Fish is Fish

      It’s a pond, not a well, and the story is different point of view, though. The tadpole becomes a frog who leaves the pond. But the feeling is somewhat the same. “Somewhat”? Well, maybe “a little bit.” OK, maybe “not completely different.”

      But it’s a great book with a realistic moral.

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