Frogs and toads in Chinese myths, legends, and folklore

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Author: Shanshan Yang
Date: Annual 2016
Publisher: Chinese Historical Society
Document Type: Article
Length: 4,585 words
Lexile Measure: 1420L

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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.


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...

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