Frogs and toads in Chinese myths, legends, and folklore.

Author:Yang, Shanshan
 
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In Chinese restaurants around the world, it is common to see a golden toad displayed at the front counter near the cash register. The toad, seated on stacks of golden coins with another coin in its mouth, is a classic and popular folk symbol of wealth and prosperity. In Chinese folklore, a three-legged toad biting a coin can bring wealth and good fortune to a household. The legend of the three-legged toad is associated with Liu Haichan, often shortened to Liu Hai, in the story "Liu Hai Plays with the Golden Toad." During the Ming dynasty, Liu Hai was listed as one of the eight immortals in the book Liexian quanzhuan; Complete Biographies of Immortals) printed in 1600. On January 14, 2004, China Post issued a special stamp based on the traditional Chinese New Year woodcut Liu Hai Plays with the Golden Toad. The stamp vividly depicts Liu Hai, a Taoist immortal, waving a string of coins and playing with a three-legged toad. Because the pattern on the skin of a toad resembles coins, it is believed to have the power of spitting gold coins out of its mouth. In the story, Liu Hai obtains numerous gold coins with the help of the three-legged golden toad, which he then uses to help the poor. Liu Hai is thus worshipped as a god of wealth; the three-legged golden toad is worshipped as an auspicious animal that can bring forth prosperity and blessings.

In addition to wealth and prosperity, frogs and toads in Chinese culture have other symbolic folk meanings. For a better understanding, we need to both locate the animal in its cultural context and study the animal itself. As Maurice S. Friedman states in his insightful article, "To say a thing is a symbol does not necessarily mean that it is not what it is in itself but that it points beyond itself to something of still greater importance. In contrast to the sign, the true symbol points to the thing symbolized by virtue of some quality in itself which is the same as that in the thing pointed to." (1) The oral and textual transmission of Chinese myths and legends about frogs and toads allows us to explore and discover what they symbolize in Chinese communities and culture worldwide.

THE SYMBOLIC MEANING OF FROGS AND TOADS IN CHINESE MYTHS AND LEGENDS

In Chinese folklore and custom, frogs and toads symbolize fertility, regeneration, yin, and immortality. All of these meanings can be traced to the Chinese myth of the Moon Goddess, Chang E. Li Guifeng pays close attention to the myth of Chang E as recorded in the Yishi; Interpreting History). (2) In the tale of the Moon Goddess, Chang E was transformed from a beautiful maiden into a toad. The toad is a highly reproductive animal that can hatch twenty thousand eggs at a time, twice a year. That is why the ancients worshipped toads for procreation. Chang E, the Moon Goddess and representative of women, turns herself into a toad, which deifies women's reproductive power and embodies people's wishes of multiplying their descendants. (3)

However, Li only focuses on the record about Chang E in the Yishi, but he does not realize that Ma Su (1621-1673), the author of Yishi, actually made some modifications to the story, even though Ma claimed that he based his version on the one in the Lingxian (The Spiritual Constitution of the Universe). For instance, Chang E is represented as a wife in the Yishi, but not in the Lingxian. To better understand the relation between Chang E and the toad, it is necessary to trace the myth from its original source in the Lingxian, which was written by the ancient Chinese astronomer Zhang Heng (78-139 CE) of the Eastern Han dynasty:

The moon is the source of the yin spirit. It accumulates energy and transforms itself into an animal, becoming a rabbit or a toad ... Yi received an elixir from the Queen Mother of the West. Chang E stole the elixir and planned to go to the moon. Before her departure, she asked a diviner called Youhuang to predict her future. Youhuang completed the divination with coins, telling Chang E, "Fortunate. You will fly to your final destination. Alone you will go to the west. If you see the darkness, do not be afraid. In the end, everything turns out to be prosperous." Thus, Chang E resided on the moon, becoming a toad. (4) According to Zhang Heng's Lingxian, the sun is the source of the yang spirit and represented by a three-footed bird, while the moon is the source of the yin spirit and represented by a rabbit or a toad. Through the moon, a bridge between yin and the toad is built. Because the toad represents the appearance of the moon, it is also the embodiment of yin. (5) In this myth, Chang E is given an elixir by the Queen Mother, which transforms her into an immortal. (6) The toad also symbolizes the moon because Chang E resides on the moon in the form of a toad.

The second symbolic meaning of the toad is harvest, prosperity, and blessing. Lin Jifu, who focuses on Chinese folklore study, suggests that the origin of the frog/ toad cult takes its root in the agricultural civilization of southern China. To the southern Chinese, rice is the staple food source; in order to grow rice, rain is fundamental. The ancients believed that the croaking of frogs would bring forth rain. Thus, there are a lot of ethnicities in southern China that have the tradition of frog/toad worship. (7) Xin Qiji (1140-1207) wrote in a poem, "The rice fields' sweet smell promises a good harvest / I listen to the frogs croak in the neighborhood." (8) As croaking frogs are believed to have the power of arousing the spirit of rain and bringing rainfall that can nourish the rice, frogs become symbols of harvest.

The third symbolic meaning of frogs and toads is as a channel through which humans can communicate with other worlds. In her article, Peng Chunmei challenges Lin's theory of the frog/toad cult taking root in the agricultural civilization of southern China. She suggests that the frog/toad cult could have originated from...

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