[Originally appeared in the April 1998 issue of Silkroad, the in-flight magazine of DragonAir]
and Toadie Tales in the Middle Kingdom
by Pamela Logan
In September on the Tibetan plateau, rivers are swollen with summer rains, and pastures turn into bogs. Out of this soggy nursery comes a brash crop of grey-green frogs. Now, at only about eight weeks old, some are still in tadpole form, while others have already changed into tiny four-legged croakers. As summer draws to a close, they are feasting on bugs and worms in preparation for burying themselves in mud, where they will stay throughout the long, cold winter.
"Frogs flourishing at 13,500 feet--this is going to be big news in the herpetology community!" exclaims Stephen Aldridge, American sinologist and frog fancier, as he tenderly scoops up a creature no bigger than his thumbnail. He's excited about the find because elsewhere in the world frogs seem to be disappearing at an alarming rate. In, Australia, India, Europe, the Americas, and the former USSR, biologists are aghast at plummeting populations, apparently brought about by environmental or atmospheric changes that are still poorly understood. But here in Asias high, remote back pocket the frogs are hanging on.
Frogs and toads belong to the family of anurans, which simply means "without tail"--a feature that distinguishes them from other amphibians such as lizards. There is not much difference between frogs and toads, although generally toads are small, warty, and prefer dry habitats, while frogs are larger, have smooth skin, and prefer the wet. Within China alone there are more than 195 species of anurans--ample inspiration for countless myths and fables. Lore has it that frog spawn falls from the sky with the dew, so frogs are nicknamed tianji, or "heavenly chicken"--or perhaps the name has more to do with the divine taste of frog legs!
One ancient fable tells how a beautiful woman called Chang E stole the Elixir of Immortality from her husband. Fearful of his wrath, she fled to the moon, where she was changed into a three-legged toad whose outlines can be traced in the moon's disk. Bronze figurines of three-legged frogs are common fare in China's antique markets. If the animal has a coin in its mouth, then it is Liu Hai's toad, an emblem of money-making that will bring you good fortune. Liu Hai was a 10th century Taoist sorcerer who, legend says, had a magical three-legged toad. Every time the toad ran away, Liu Hai would lure it back using a line baited with gold coins. Thus frogs have came to be associated with wealth--an auspicious alliance indeed.
Toads have one special use that puts them apart from frogs: they are a source of strong medicine. Bufotoxin taken from a bump on a toad's skin is said to bring on psychedelic hallucinations. "Liu Hai's toad could transport you anywhere," Aldridge says, and speculates that bufotoxin may have been used by Chinese mystics during vision-seeking rituals. Frog products are still used in traditional Chinese medicines, for example one flu remedy purchased in Beijing contains indigo, mother of pearl, and toad-venom.
Tibetans also have a liking for frogs, considering them to belong to the family of nagas--dragons, snakes and other reptiles. The Lukhang, or "Dragon House" is a temple erected about 450 years ago in the Tibetan capital especially to pay homage to nagas. It lies on a man-made island within a shallow pond which, locals say, was once home to thousands of frogs. Now it's a municipal park. Every year on April 15th a festival is held here, a holdover from olden times when lamas made annual offerings to the naga kings to insure prosperity for the Tibetan people.
A casual visitor to the Lukhang will be hard-pressed to spot any nagas in the water today. But Ngawang Letrup, a 25-year-old monk who takes care of the temple, insists there are snakes in the pond. "About one meter long, white snakes. Usually you can't see them. But when the naga kings are angry, the snakes come out. Really!"
Why are nagas revered? "According to ancient belief, nagas are repositories of sacred knowledge," Aldridge says. "For example, Nagajuna was the first proponent of the Central View, which many regard as the culmination of Buddhist philosophy. Legend says that he learned it from the nagas." In another instance of frog-found wisdom, the traditional Tibetan medical practice of pulse diagnosis--reading a patient's health by feeling the heartbeat in his wrist--is called bel-cha, or "frog hand."
Barometers of the environment, providers of wealth, curers of the sick, bestowers of wisdom--a lot of responsibility is resting on frogs' small, slippery shoulders. Let's hope the embattled creatures continue to carry their load boldly and well.
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