CC-CEDICT: 坐井观天 (zuò​jǐng​guān​tiān) lit. to view the sky from the bottom of a well (idiom); ignorant and narrow-minded

The origin of the above 成语 (idiom) is reported to be the line


This comes from the Tang dynasty essay 《原道》 by 韩愈. I understand the above is Classical Chinese, which is new to me. Here's my attempt at understanding this sentence:

坐井而观天 to sit in a well and observe the sky
曰天小者 and declare 曰 the sky is a small thing 小者
非天小也 [but it is] not 非 the sky which is small

The 也 at the end seems to be the special character:

CC-CEDICT: 也 (yě​) (in Classical Chinese) final particle implying affirmation

Honestly, my understanding of this sentence is fairly flimsy, especially 曰, 小者, and 非.

Question: How do I precisely understand 坐井而观天,曰天小者,非天小也?

  • 「之」「乎」「者」「也」都是常用文言虚词 - "Zhi", "Hu", "Zhe" and "Ye" are all commonly used classical Chinese function words
    – Tang Ho
    Commented Jul 25, 2021 at 21:58

3 Answers 3


You already have a good understanding on this idiom, with the words explained, you can help yourself.


Note 曰天小者 are four separate words - "say", "sky", "small", and "person". There is no connection between the individual word like 天小, and 小者, but "天" "小" and "者".

In ancient Chinese writings, you will see many sentences end in one of these 4 letters - 之, 乎, 者, 也. In the past, they are very important for a person's education/knowledge level was exclusively judged by the proper use/handle of those letters. However, the meaning and use of these letters are not an easy task, and a lot of time people have to guess, either by reading the article several times, or using inference techniques. The difficulty in learning old writing style had been the barrier to the vast majority of Chinese in gaining an education, thus, the writing style that included using these letters was abolished right after overthrew of the Qing Dynasty.

In here, my interpretation 也 as 啊 may draw some objections, read on :)

  • I agree with most of your opinions, but I think there is a better explanation for "者". "者" here should be a particle with no actual meaning; it is just a part of a 判断句, not "的人".
    – T-Pioneer
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 12:43
  • @T-Pioneer 反我者 殺之 :)
    – r13
    Commented Jul 30, 2021 at 15:29
  • Afraid... :-) But I have an example too: "童寄者,郴州荛牧儿也。(柳宗元《童区寄传》)"
    – T-Pioneer
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 13:53
  • @T-Pioneer Sorry, 古文到此不通 :)
    – r13
    Commented Jul 31, 2021 at 16:07
  • 这里的者显然不是指示代词,还得多学习喔)这里,者……也合用是一个有音节停顿的判断句 Commented Aug 25, 2021 at 14:58


井底之蛙, 是一个汉语成语,意思是指井底的青蛙认为天只有井口那么大。

坐井而观天 if you sit at the bottom of a well and regard the sky
曰天小者 you could say that the sky is small
非天小也 but it is not the sky which is small yeah!

There is however a story about some ancient Egyptian astronomers who would do this at a certain time of year to regard a particular star during the day.

The belief is an old one. Aristotle (384 BCE – 322 BCE) mentioned it in one of his essays, and Chapter 20 of Charles Dickens’ Pickwick Papers begins with it. Ancient or not, the belief doesn’t work in practice.


  • This is one Idiom that may give rise to arguments as to its true national origin, like who learn from whom on noodle / spaghetti eating, not to mention the question why the poor harmless frog is so internationally malign. Among the nationalities are, (in no particular order of merit of course), Chinese, 井底之蛙, Katak di bawah tempurung, (Malay Proverb - Frog under a shell), Japanese, 井の中の蛙、大海を知らず, and English, The Frog in the Well. However, a "European" near equivalent Idiom is "To measure another’s corn by one’s own bushel" Here, at least the "frog" is respected, though frogs, wells are common. Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 3:10
  • I recently discovered some hitherto unknown sayings of Confucius. In this context: 孔子曰:“坐在井底人之屁股会被湿也!” Now retranslate this one: Confucius spake: man who run in front of car get tired, but man who run behind car get exhausted!
    – Pedroski
    Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 4:26
  • BTW, I think we need someone around here, @r13, maybe, who could do a good pun in Chinese on "tired" & "exhausted"? I certainly couldn't. Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 7:32
  • Here's an oft-quoted lost saying of Confucius -- "有性问题睡觉, 手头有解方也" Since I could not consult Confucius personally or any of his pupils, I consulted Mr. Google and he kindly translated it as "Sleep with sexual problems, and have solutions on hand", which though a bit limp, it does captures the essence of the saying?" Commented Jul 26, 2021 at 7:49





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