China Scenic - - Contents - By Wang Ju Pho­to­graphs by Fei Lin

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.

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