Chinese literature: Ancient Chinese Fables


A fable is “a short story devised to convey some useful lesson, an apologue”. A distinctive feature of the fable is that it contains a moral truth.

Some Chinese fables concentrate on a certain period in the development of Chinese fables while others cover almost the entire history of Chinese literature up to the Qing Dynasty. Fables have served to enrich the Chinese language and the morals of these tales have found their way into the language and are still in use up to this day.

The Frog in the Shallow Well
Have you not heard of the frog that lived in a shallow well? It said to a turtle that lived in the East Sea, “I am so happy! When I go out, I jump about on the railing beside the mouth of the well. When I come home,I rest in the holes on the broken wall of the well. If I jump into the water, it comes up to my armpits and holds up my cheeks. If I walk in the mud, it covers up my feet. I look around at the wriggly worms, crabs and tadpoles, and none of them can compare with me. Moreover, I am lord of this trough of water and I stand up tall in this shallow well. My happiness is full. My dear sir, why don’t you come often and look around my place?”

Before the turtle from the East Sea could get its left foot in the well, its right knee got stuck. It hesitated and retreated. The turtle told the frog about the East Sea.

“Even a distance of a thousand li cannot give you an idea of the sea’s width; even a height of a thousand ren cannot give you an idea of its depth. In the time of King Yu of the Xia dynasty, there were floods nine years out of ten, but the waters in the sea did not increase. ln the time of King Tang of the Shang dynasty there were droughts seven years out of eight, but the waters in the sea did not decrease. The sea does not change along with the passage of time and its level does not rise or fall according to the amount of rain that falls. The greatest happiness is to live in the East Sea.”

After listening to these words, the frog of the shallow well was shocked into realization of his own insignificance and became very ill at ease.

li: a Chinese unit of length equal to half a kimometre. ren: a Chinese unit of length, approximately equal to 21/3 metres.

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