Tag Archives: Chuang Tzu

Frog in a well

The following story is part of a work in progress, a series of stories for religious liberal kids. From the Chaung-tzu, 17.10, adapted from the James Legge translation. Still a rough draft, comments welcome as always.

Kung-sun Lung was talking to Prince Mou of Wei.

Kung-sun Lung said, “When I was just a boy, I learned all the teachings of the great kings of old, and I learned how to be good, kind, and righteous. I studied the wisdom of ancient philosophers; I learned all the arguments about being and the attributes of being; I learned what was true and correct, and what was false and incorrect. I thought I understood every subject under the sun.

“But when I heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu,” said Kung-sun Lung, “I get all confused. Maybe I’m not as good at arguing as he is. Or maybe I don’t know as much as he does. But now that I have heard the teachings of Chuang-tzu, I feel like I don’t even dare open my mouth. What is wrong?”

Prince Mou leaned forward on his stool. He drew a long breath, looked up to heaven, and smiled. Then he told this story:


“Have you ever heard the story of the frog of the broken-down well?” he said. Kung-sun Lung shook his head. “Well, then,” said Prince Mou, “Once upon a time, there was a frog that lived in a broken-down well. Ordinarily, this frog would not want to live in a well, because once he got into the well, he wouldn’t be able to get out again. But the broken-down sides of the well allowed the frog to climb in and out of the well as if he were climbing a ladder, or a broken-down staircase.

“One day, the frog climbed out of the well, and as he walked around, he happened to fall into a conversation with the Turtle of the Eastern Sea. She asked the frog how he enjoyed living where he did.

“The little frog said he enjoyed it very much. ‘I hop onto the edge of my broken-down well,’ said the frog, ‘and from there I climb down into the water, using the broken-down sides of the well as a grand staircase to the water. When I get close to the water, I dive into it. I draw my legs together, and keep my chin up, and swim around the well. I dive down to the bottom of the well, down and down until my feet are lost in the mud. I come back up for air, and I look around at everyone else who lives in the well — the little crabs, the insects, the tadpoles — and I see that there is no one who match me. I am in complete command of the water of my whole little valley. It is the greatest pleasure to enjoy myself in my broken-down well. You should come with me and try it yourself.’

“With that, the little frog led the way to his broken-down well. The Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to follow him. But her front right foot got stuck in the well, before she had even manage to move her front left foot forward. At this, she hesitated, and then drew back, saying to the frog that it would be better if she didn’t try to get into the broken-down well.

“Instead, the Turtle of the Eastern Sea tried to tell the little frog he she enjoyed living where she did. ‘The Eastern Sea where I live,’ said the turtle, ‘is thousands of miles across, so far i can’t even measure it. It is more than a mile deep, so deep that i cannot find the bottom. If your valley got flooded, and hundreds more valleys like yours also got flooded, and if they all drained into the Eastern Sea, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not rise. If there were to be a drought, so that no rain fell for seven out of eight years, it is so huge that the level of the sea would not fall. The waters of the Eastern Sea do not rise or fall for any cause, great or small. And this is the greatest pleasure of living in the Eastern Sea.’

“When the little frog from the broken-down well heard the turtle describe how big the Eastern Sea was, he was amazed and frightened. His mouth opened, and he was lost in surprise.”


When Prince Mou finished telling this story, he said to Kung Sung-lung, “Do you understand how this story answers your question?”

Kung-sun Lung did not respond.

Prince Mou said, “Someone who isn’t yet able to understand the true difference between truth and falsehood can’t possibly understand Chuang-tzu — it would be like asking a mosquito to carry a mountain on its back. If you don’t have the wisdom to know how to talk seriously about very important topics, you are like the frog in the broken-down well.

“Chuang-tzu is like like the Turtle of the Eastern Sea, able to reach the deepest depths of the earth, and able to rise to the highest heights of sky. With freedom he launches out in any direction, and starting from what is confusing, he always comes back to what is understandable. Yet you think you are going to understand what he’s talking about by asking lots of questions and making lots of arguments! It is if you are trying to look at the whole sky through a small tube. You are like a frog in a broken-down well.”

Upon hearing this, Kung-sun Lung’s mouth fell open in surprise. He felt like his tongue was stuck to the roof of his mouth. He slunk away, and when he was out of sight of Prince Mou, he ran away home.

Score card

Bookstore score card for the day:
— Three bookstores in three cities (Berkeley, Oakland, San Francisco).
— Three books (Chuang Tzu, Ch’ing dynasty memoir, 19th C. English novel).
— One bumpersticker reading “HOWL if you [heart] City Lights Books”.

What a great vacation.

The Quail and the Bird called P’eng

Part of a series of stories for liberal religious kids. This story is from the Taoist tradition: adapted from section 1 of Chuang Tzu, from translations by Lin Yu tang, and by Burton Watson. The closing paragraph is derived from a line that may have been lost from the text (see note 5 in Watson).

The Quail and the Bird Called P’eng

Copyright (c) 2006 Dan Harper

Many years ago in ancient China, the Emperor T’ang was speaking with a wise man named Ch’i.

Ch’i was telling the Emperor about the wonders of far off and distant places. Ch’i said:

“If you go far, far to the north, beyond the middle kingdom of China, beyond the lands where our laughing black-haired people live, you will come to the lands where the snow lies on the ground for nine months a year, and where the people speak a barbaric language and eat strange foods.

“And if you travel even farther to the north, you will come to a land where the snow and ice never melts, not even in the summer. In that land, night never comes in the summer time, but in the winter, the sun never appears and the night lasts fro months at a time.

“And if you go still farther to the north, beyond the barren land of ice and snow, you will come to a vast, dark sea. This sea is called the Lake of Heaven. Many marvelous things live in the Lake of Heaven. They say there is a fish called K’un. The fish K’un is thousands of miles wide, and who knows how many miles long.”

“A fish that is thousands of miles long?” said the Emperor. “How amazing!”

“It is even more amazing than it seems at first,” said Ch’i. “For this giant fish can change shape and become a bird called P’eng. This bird is enormous. When it spreads its wings, it is as if clouds cover the sky. Its back is like a huge mountain. When it flaps its wings, typhoons spread out across the vast face of the Lake of Heaven for thousands of miles. The wind from P’eng’s wings lasts for six months. P’eng rises up off the surface of the water, sweeping up into the blue sky. The giant bird wonders, ‘Is blue the real color of the sky, or is the sky blue because it goes on forever?’ And when P’eng looks down, all it sees is blue sky below, with the wind piled beneath him.”

A little gray dove and a little insect, a cicada, sat on the tree and listened to Ch’i tell the Emperor about the bird P’eng. They looked at each other and laughed quietly. The cicada said quietly to the dove, “If we’re lucky, sometimes we can fly up to the top of that tall tree over there. But lots of times, we don’t even make it that high up.”

“Yes,” said the little dove. “If we can’t even make it to the top of the tree, how on earth can that bird P’eng fly that high up in the sky? No one can fly that high.”

Ch’i continued to describe the giant bird P’eng to the Emperor. “Flapping its wings, the bird wheels in flight,” said Ch’i, “and it turns south, flying across the thousands of miles of the vastness of the Lake of Heaven, across the oceans of the Middle Kingdom, heading many thousands of miles towards the great Darkness of the South.”

A quail sat quietly in a bush beside the Emperor and Ch’i. “The bird P’eng can fly all those thousands of miles from the Lake of Heaven in the north across the Middle Kingdom, and into the vast ocean in the south?” said the quail to himself. “Well, I burst up out of the bushes into flight, fly a dozen yards, and settle back down into the bushes again. That’s the best kind of flying. Who cares if some big bird flies ninety thousand miles?”

The Emperor listened to Ch’i, and said, “Do up and down ever have an end? Do the four directions ever come to an end?”

“Up and down never come to an end,” said Ch’i. “The four directions never come to an end.

“That is the difference between a small understanding and a great understanding,” continued Ch’i. “If you have a small understanding, you might think the top of that tree is as high up as you can go. If you have a small understanding, you might think that flying to that bush over there is as far as you can go in that direction. But even beyond the point where up and down and the four directions are without end, there is no end.”

But the quail did not hear, for she had flown a dozen yards away in the bushes. The cicada did not hear because it was trying to fly to the top of a tree. And the little dove did not hear because he, too, was flying to the top of the nearby elm tree.