The Significance of Frogs in Chinese Culture

Frogs are plentiful in the Chinese countryside, where they flourish in rice paddies.
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In the West, popular fairy tales feature handsome princes and princesses transformed by dark magic into lowly frogs. In Hindu mythology, frogs are associated with evil. Indigenous peoples of the North American Northwest linked frogs to rain. In Chinese culture, however, frogs can signify everything from prosperity and immortality to ignorance. This rich symbolic currency is inherited from Chinese mythology, superstition and even popular proverbs. In Chinese culture, to understand one meaning for the frog is to ignore a host of others.

1 The "Money Frog" and Prosperity

This traditional statue of Ch'an Chu holds a coin within its mouth, perhaps as a way of summoning other coins to follow.
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The frog is most famous in Chinese culture as a sign of prosperity. Ch’an Chu, the three-legged money frog, is a popular statue believed to attract or protect its owner's wealth. In feng shui -- the art of planning and building structures to maximize harmony between individuals and the universe -- frogs are recognized as a sign of affluence. The association between frogs and money can be linked to the myth of Liu Hai, a 10th century bureaucrat who possessed a magical three-legged frog. Whenever the frog would hide in a well, Liu Hai would entice it to appear by dangling gold coins down the well for it to swallow.

2 Symbols of Protection

The dragon boat race is a highlight of the Danwu Festival, which is especially popular in Southern China.
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Frogs are not only a powerful wealth charm, however. They also signify protection. The Danwu, or Dragon Boat Festival -- which is May 5 according to the lunar calendar -- was traditionally celebrated to ward off diseases and plagues for the coming year. Children, as the most vulnerable population, wore protective thread bracelets to ward off sickness. The festival includes a host of symbolic creatures meant to protect against evil, including Ch’an Chu. In Chinese medicine, the frog is considered beneficial to health. Its eye secretions have been used as a remedy for cardiac diseases.

3 Frog Down a Well

The frog even serves as a figure in proverbial wisdom -- but not of prosperity or protection. Instead, the frog is a symbol of provincialism. The Chinese have a saying, a “frog down a well.” The expression refers to a Han fable about a frog who was content in his dark well. One day, an ocean turtle arrived and described to the frog the majesty of the sea. Consequently, the frog is embarrassed by his own ignorance. Today, the expression is used to describe somebody who is so firmly wedged in one way of doing things that they are as blind as the “frog down the well.”

4 Frogs and the Theft of the Peaches of Immortality

Other stories from Chinese mythology associate the frog with immortality and the moon. In one legend, a chieftain is given the Peaches of Immortality. His wife steals the peaches and flees to the moon. As her punishment, she gains immortality, but is transformed into a frog. Even today, frogs are a vital link to that fable, retaining this connection to immortality although the details of the myth itself might be forgotten.

Alana Shilling is a contributor to several publications including "The Brooklyn Rail," "Art in America" and the "Fortnightly Review." She writes on subjects ranging from archaeology and history to contemporary art. Shilling received a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in comparative literature from Princeton University and has been writing for audiences both general and academic since 2005.