Frogs were once a popular subject of pottery decoration in prehistoric China. These simplistic yet vivid frog patterns reflected the inventive thoughts of early Chinese ancestors.
Frogs, while viewed from a modern perspective as being relatively unspectacular animals, were once a popular subject of pottery decoration in prehistoric China. These simplistic yet vivid frog patterns reflected the “water village” lifestyle of the era and region, as well as the inventive thoughts of early Chinese ancestors.
In 1972, at the Jiangzhai Ruins in Lintong District, Xi’an, Shaanxi Province, while digging ditches, farmers accidentally unearthed an exquisite colored terracotta pot. Along the inner walls of the pot were depictions of two large frogs, as well as two pairs of fish. The frog’s belly was large and round, its limbs curved outward and toes spread, as if it were about to leap. The artifact was given the official name “fish and frog colored terracotta pot”.
The Jiangzhai Ruins are a part of the Banpo-type of early Yangshao culture, and date back 6,000 years. Yangshao culture was first discovered in 1921, in Yangshao Village, Sanmenxia City, Henan, hence the name. The culture existed from about 7,000-5,000 years ago, and could be found throughout the entire middle reaches of the Yellow River. To date, over 1,000 Yangshao culture sites have been found, among which the greatest numbers were found in Henan and Shaanxi, which collectively form the center of the culture.
This particular terracotta pot, unearthed from Jiangzhai, is to date one of the earliest extant images of a frog unearthed in China. From the level of craftsmanship seen in the piece, it can be determined that frogs had already been depicted by the prehistoric people for many generations.
A frog may not seem like much to us today, but to those of this ancient civilization it was quite a miraculous creature: it starts out as a little “fish”, later sprouts four appendages, then climbs out of the water and hops around. This kind of transformation, and the concept of an animal that can breathe both air and water, filled the ancient Chinese with both amazement and perplexity. What they admired most of all was the frog’s ability to reproduce: after a single encounter between male and female, a whole slew of eggs could be produced, and in no time the creek or pond where they dwelled would overflow with younglings.
The belly of the frogs on the Jiangzhai pot were speckled with black dots, emphasizing their many offspring. With these odd yet incredible abilities, frogs and toads (which bear similar appearances) stood out among all the animals these progenitors of the Chinese people had come across as particularly noteworthy.
In the upper reaches of the Yellow River, Yangshao culture was followed by Majiayao culture, which existed from 5,000 to 3,800 years ago. During this time, frog patterns underwent further development, eventually going on to become one of the main patterns seen on pottery. Beginning from Yangshao culture, frog patterns were in popular use for a total of about 2,000 years. Archaeologist Yan Wenming (1932–) points out that a subject was used for such a significant length of time could not be a coincidence, and it must be connected to the beliefs and traditional concepts of a people. The frog, with its not particularly attractive appearance, may in fact have been a totem
that was worshipped by the ancestors of the middle reaches of the Yellow River.
As a totem, the most important spiritual function of the frog was that it could be prayed to in the hope that one would enjoy plentiful offspring. The proliferation and dissemination of one’s population were decisive factors in the development of early society, thus reproduction was seen by every clan as a matter of great importance. Since a frog can lay several thousand eggs in one batch, it served as the perfect metaphor. Therefore, this characteristic of frogs was lavished by cultures throughout ancient China: the frog pattern on a shard of colored terracotta unearthed from the Miaodigou Ruins in Shan County, Henan, similar in conception to those from the Banpo era (a branch of Yangshao culture), featured black dots on the belly as well, clearly pointing out the many offspring of the frog; and on a terracotta cauldron found in Wanquanjing Village, Shanxi, the entire frog was drawn using only a series of dots.
In Chinese folklore, it was Nüwa who moulded the first human being from clay, and thus acted as the creator of all human life. Chinese scholar Yang Kun (1901–1998) noted in his book Astudyonnüwa, that the “wa” in “Nüwa” is a homophone of the Chinese character for “frog”, and thus it was possible that the Nüwa character was once the totem of a particular people. The story may have developed like so: the “Nüwa” of the Taihao people in the eastern lands was “married” to the Shaodian people of the west, and bore an exceptionally large number of children, who eventually formed a large community. Later generations of her family commemorated her by taking Nüwa as their ancestral mother, with the frog as their totem.
In a matriarchal society, consanguinity is determined by one’s mother’s bloodline, thus the totem of the mother’s family would stand out starkly in one’s lineage. According to the research of Dr. Liu Baoshan of the Qinghai Archaeology Center, throughout the region of present-day Lantian County, Shaanxi, women from the same village, wherever their post-marriage life may take them, and regardless of social class, upon meeting one another will say that they “have the same mother”. This may be a remnant of Nüwa worshipping culture.
Another purpose of deifying the frog may have been the protection of human life. Life is given by the totem, and upon death the spirit returns to the totem, repeating this pattern in an endless cycle. The fish and frog terracotta pot found in the Jiangzhai Ruins in fact served as the lid of a funerary urn; thus the frog pattern carved into it may have embodied well wishes for the “salvation” of the casket’s owner.
These simple yet lifelike frog patterns act as a vivid window into the water village life as it existed several millennia ago. Even in comparison to the dragon and bird, the frog as a totem was by no means lacking in mystical power: not only did it determine vital decisions of people, it was also given a place among the most important of deities, as the toad served as a
symbol of the moon and became the “Moon God” of the Heavenly Palace. Although the first clear written documentation of this did not appear until the Han Dynasty (202 BC–AD 220), its origin can be traced back 3,000 years prior, to prehistoric times. In the colored terracotta pottery found in the Majiayao culture region, some fused the frog and moon together into a novel “frog-moon pattern” (“frog” here represents both frogs and toads, since their appearance is similar, and they are in fact of the same order). Dr. Yan Wenming points out that the bird and frog patterns of the Yangshao and Majiayao cultures eventually evolved into the quasi-sun and quasi-frog patterns of later years, which may have been a manifestation of worship for the sun and moon gods in the form of ceramic art.
Between Yangshao and Majiayao, the frog pattern was in widespread use for over two millennia. From the perspective of art history, the artistic lifespan of the frog was equally as amazing as its reproductive capability.
During the Yangshao culture period, the round shape of the frogs depicted was quite close to reality. By the time of Majiayao culture, the style of frog patterns had become significantly more abstract and freeform, coming close to evolving into a linear symbol. The plump belly of the frog was simplified into two vertical lines, and the four limbs became broken lines, spreading outward exaggeratedly. However, these geometric arrangements of strokes do not by any means appear crude and rigid, instead they are full of lively motion. From a purely artistic perspective, these aesthetic qualities of negating realism and choosing to emphasize form alone, even from today’s standards, could be considered as fine examples of impressionism.
Many archaeologists, including Su Bingqi (1909– 1997), Shi Xingbang (1923–) and Yan Wenming, believe that the geometric designs on prehistoric ceramics mainly evolved from animal-based patterns. For example, spiral patterns originated from bird
patterns, wavy curves from frog patterns, and so on. Therefore, although these geometric patterns are quite simple in design, their appearance was much later than those based on animals. In addition, these abstract geometric patterns are by no means merely aesthetic in nature, they incorporate primitive yet very strong symbolic significance.
From another perspective, these minimalistic glyphs consisting of dots and lines are very close in appearance to the structure of Chinese characters. The first Chinese characters were pictographic in conception, and we can imagine with some certainty that a number of these developed directly from the patterned symbols on such works of ceramics. These symbols originated from much earlier an era than the oracle bone script of the Shang Dynasty (1600–1046 BC), and perhaps serve as one of the very first ancestors of the Chinese characters we see today.
These lavish images of frogs, created through the uninhibited imaginations of prehistoric artists, can also be said to somewhat resemble human figures. Without the distinct sequence of transformation of these frog symbols, they may be mistaken for representations of people.
A terracotta pot including a human figure, unearthed from the Liuwan Ruins of Ledu County, Qinghai Province, are an excellent example of the relationship between human and frog. The neck of this 4000-year-old ceramic pot was shaped into the visage of a human, complete with all facial features, while the body of the pot is that of the person, its hands held akimbo, with a pair of breasts, a belly button and genitals all included as well. Although the body is fully naked, it’s quite difficult to determine the person’s sex, resulting in some referring to it as the “yin yang (intersex) person”. On either side of the figure are a set of matching circles, and these are filled with a mesh pattern coinciding with some styles of frog patterns. On the back of the figure the patterns become much more typical, missing only the heads of the frogs, as if the human one on the neck of the bottle doubles as that of the frogs. Some scholars believe that this exhibits the fusion of man with frog, in turn representing prayer for reproduction and bountiful harvest.
The patterns found on some ceramic works unearthed from areas such as Gansu and Qinghai make it even more difficult to discern between man and
frog. In fact, these distorted and simplified frog patterns have been referred to by researchers as either “person patterns” or “personified frog patterns”. Some scholars believe this to hint that, in the late days of Majiayao culture, the worship of totems had gradually evolved into the worship of humankind itself. At this point in time, the matriarchal society system had given way to a patriarchal one, and consequently totems including female elements had gradually become reserved for the altar. Then, along with the decline of ceramics in practical use, the primitive frog patterns which had developed for so long since Yangshao culture had lost their meaning, beginning their descent into obscurity.
The new kingdoms arose to replace the clans, with which came immense changes to both the ideologies and reproductive processes of society. During the Shang and Zhou dynasties (1600–256 BC), some wavy patterns could still be seen on a portion of bronze and ceramic ware, but these were now nothing more than ordinary decorations, and it was unlikely that anyone would have connected them to frogs. As for later years, images of frogs often appeared on everyday items such as water basins and wine decanters, though they were absent of their deified connotations, becoming nothing more than the small animals they once began as.
This is a restored illustration of the Jiangzhai prehistoric settlement in Lintong, Shaanxi. The residential area was surrounded by a river and man-made trenches, while an opening square in the center was surrounded by tents of different sizes. During that time, frogs and other tropical and subtropical animals were common in the Yellow River Basin. Photo/ FOTOE
The striking fertility of the frog was craved by prehistoric people who struggled to survive. On the inner wall of the “fish and frog colored terracotta pot” unearthed in the Jiangzhai Ruins of Lintong, Shaanxi, black dots painted densely on the round belly of a frog, insinuating its reproductive capacity.
Viewed from the Earth, the mysterious shadows of the moon were given all kinds of interpretations. In Chinese mythology, a goddess named Chang’e lives in a palace on the moon with a rabbit and a toad. In this photo, the shadows on the moon resemble the image of a toad and a rabbit. Illustration/ Sun Keyi
This photo and the two illustrations present a Majiayao Culture terracotta pot with the “frog-moon pattern,” an abstract frog image lying in the center of a full moon.
This terracotta pot was unearthed from the Ledu Majiayao Cultural Ruins in Qinghai. Scholars hold different opinions of the object that the patterns on the pot represent, some say it is human, some say it is a frog, while others say half-human, half-frog. What is certain is that the combination of human and frog patterns became a trend during the late Majiayao period. Photo/ FOTOE
A Majiayao culture frog-patterned pottery pot.