Arrogant squid, ch. 2: the mystery deepens

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Four days ago, we were treated to the "Arrogant squid of North Texas" (2/2/20).  The longer we pondered this conundrum, the more puzzling it became.  We know exactly where the sign is located (23 miles southeast of Houston and about 10 miles west of Trinity Bay, which joins with Galveston Bay to the south), but we couldn't figure out how and why the "arrogant squid" was connected with North Texas, Southwest District, East Location.

Reader Sarah S. kindly took it upon herself to do a bit of research and reached out to the representative of the building's owner.  Surprisingly, he replied with a (very strange?) message from the tenant:

I represent the owner of the property relating to tax issues. When the tenant leased the property a couple of years ago and installed the sign, I asked the owner what they do and he responded with the following:

Kàn dào de rén jiùshì fēixíng de rén, dànshì húdié zǒng shì huì pāidǎ chìbǎng 看到的人就是飞行的人,但是蝴蝶总是会拍打翅膀.

I can’t read Chinese, so I have no idea what it means.   Sorry that I can’t be of further assistance.

The second clause is easy to understand:  "but butterflies always flap their wings".

The first clause, on the other hand, is relatively opaque and ambiguous.  I believe that it has two main possible interpretations:

  1. The people who see / saw [it] are people who fly.
  2. The people I / we see / saw are people who fly.

More than half a dozen graduate students from China to whom I showed the tenant's response agreed with me.

With the additional information we have from the tenant who put up the sign, what sense can we make of it now?

Here are two noble attempts by graduate students who are advanced in literary studies to explain the significance of the enigmatic statement by the tenant:


Is this a poem? I don't quite understand it either, if without further context. But every time when I read this sentence, I cannot help but think of what is going on in China now. I understand the first part as that only people with an aerial view—on a higher level or outside the system—can see things right. In other words, truths are concealed from common people. But even though we cannot fly and cannot see things, the flapping of the wings of a distant butterfly will still affect us, perhaps resulting in a huge disaster on us ("蝴蝶拍打翅膀" reminds me of the famous butterfly effect theory.) Common people cannot prevent the disaster because they are not the flying person, but it is those who can't fly that in the end suffer the most from the initial small changes, which is very sad.

This is just my personal thought, and I think I can't get an exact meaning because it is truly mystifying.


It seems that the sentence might be a quote from one's poem, prose poetry, or some sort of creative writing practice; Or most likely, I guess it intends to indicate one's attitude towards a specific event.

The meaning of the first part is fairly ambiguous: it could either be understood as "people who have been seen are people who fly", or be understood as "people who have witnessed/have noticed are people who (can) fly". I think the latter makes more sense. The second part "Yet a butterfly would always flap its wings" seems to be in praise of someone in comparison with common people.

Somehow, it reminds me of a news item which has been spread widely in Chinese social media this morning concerning the death of Li Wenliang 李文亮.  Is that possible? People in China are saddened by this news and are indignantly discussing the whole thing as well as the ongoing censorship on it. If it indeed has something to do with it, I think the message may imply Doctor Li's righteousness and courage to speak up (to "flap its wings", while it's already quite something for normal people to notice the potential problem–"people who have noticed are people who can fly"), as well as the complete absence of social justice and fundamental freedom.

At this stage in our inquiry, I'm starting to think that maybe both the original sign and the couplet about flying are intentionally intended to destroy our reliance on rationality and logic, like a Zen koan.

On the other hand, one of my students said that she thinks the sign may have been a prank from the very beginning and that the couplet continued in that spirit.


[Thanks to Yijie Zhang, Chenfeng Wang, Tianyang Liu, Aona Zhou, Huijie Xu, Benjamin Bond, and Tianyi Zhang]


  1. John Swindle said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 9:30 pm

    Was I a butterfly dreaming I was an arrogant squid, or was I an arrogant squid dreaming I was a butterfly?

    The couplet about the flying person seems unrelated to North Texas Southwest District East Location, but it's presented as a reply to a query about the tenant's business, not about the sign. The sign has been there for a year or two and isn't a response to Dr. Li's recent, tragic death. Dr. Li's death might still be an example of whatever the sign is about. Or not. And 傲慢鱿 aòmàn yóu 'arrogant squid' might just mean "arrogant squid."

  2. John Swindle said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 9:34 pm

    Once again I hit "send" too quickly. The COUPLET is reported as a couple of years old and therefore isn't a response to Dr. Li's recent, tragic death. Dr. Li's death might still be an example of whatever the couplet was about.

  3. y said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 9:58 pm

    Is this the same sign at a different location?

  4. Ken said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 10:03 pm

    It's aliens, isn't it?

  5. y said,

    February 6, 2020 @ 10:41 pm

    A lyric from a pop song:


    I got a theory: this is a sign for the sign maker's loved one. "arrogant squid" is his nickname. She is gone.

  6. John Swindle said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 1:20 am

    @y: It's the same location. I don't know where the administrative boundaries of the communities are, but the postal service considers the place to be 15510 Beamer Road in Friendswood, Texas.

  7. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 1:42 am

    From a PRC graduate student:

    I have never heard of this sentence before, and I tried to search for its source but I couldn't find anything about it. Even the sentence itself is very difficult to understand—the last sentence"但是蝴蝶总是会拍打翅膀" clearly indicates the butterfly effect. As for "看到的人就是飞行的人", although there are two ways of understanding, I think the sentence might mean that people who fly higher can see. So I would like to understand the sentence as "only people who fly higher (e.g. having higher power or more knowledge) can detect the huge events caused by the butterfly effect."

    When I read your language log, I think it is not related to the death of Li Wenliang. However, now I genuinely think it is related.
    I still remember in December 2019, my roommate's boyfriend, a doctor who works in Beijing's hospital, told us there was a patient in their hospital who were suspected of having SARS. My roommate and I thought it could not be severe because we read what the government said—"the new disease does not spread among human beings." Now Li Wenliang became a "hero." It does hurt when a hero dies. But it hurts more when a normal man is made to die as a hero.

  8. cameron said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 1:43 am

    What does the site of the sign look like in satellite view on Google maps?

  9. John Swindle said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 1:57 am

    The picture on reddit is older than what we saw on Google Street View, though, and it looks like the second fence was removed in the interval. It happens. By the way, Google Street View seems to show the same bilingual text on both sides of the sign.

  10. John Swindle said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 2:20 am

    Arrogant? Haughty? Squidward(章鱼哥),is that you?

  11. Kai said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 2:45 am

    Wouldn't that be a bit anachronistic? The Facebook post from the first article in this series was posted on Nov 29. According to various news sources, Li Wenliang's fateful first message in that online chatroom was Dec 30.

    Secondly – and I have no idea how significant this is since I know next to nothing about Chinese languages – the third character on the sign appears to be 魷 (traditional), not 鱿 (simplified) as originally transcribed in the first article. A connection to Hong Kong et al? Or just old-fashioned?

  12. Keith said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 3:50 am

    I don't know Chinese, but my cursory look at Wiktionary shows that there are many sinograms that can be read yóu and a few that can be read ào or màn…

    Could this be a way of hiding some other meaning in plain sight, like the "Grass Mud Horse" of a few years ago?

    When I read the translation "The people who see / saw [it] are people who fly but butterflies always flap their wings", I understand the second part very differently.

    Because of that, for me the whole means something more like "a few have seen and have learnt something unusual, new and of great value; butterflies flap their wings, but that's in the nature of the butterfly and is nothing new or unusual".

  13. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 4:36 am

    My take on this is that the renter, with some Chinese background or connections, craves anonymity and thought that putting this on his sign and replying to the owner like that would help him achieve it.

    He thought he was being smart by using these enigmatic bits of Chinese to cover his tracks -perhaps he has literary pretensions himself. But he hadn't allowed for the hordes of X-crossword solvers, sinologists, would-be literati, people with too much time on their hands, out there who see it as a challenge. By the way, not meaning to be disparaging with those categories – I fit more than a little into a couple of them.

    What surprises me is that the owner of the site (or his representative) gave an answer to Sarah S.'s enquiry. In Germany you'd be crucified by the data-protection people.

  14. Y said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 7:57 am

    The death of Li Wenliang is so tragic. Some posts in China say: "He is asleep forever; how many people will be awakened by his sleep?" Perhaps this sign is to remeber a hero like Li Wenliang: a loved one. He/she probably died at this location, or he/she probably left. The sign is to remember him/her and the location. This sign is meant to be read by this hero, this beloved one. He/she will see it wherever he/she is.

  15. Victor Mair said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 9:02 am

    I just want to thank all of the commenters for their beautiful, wonderful, sensitive observations.

  16. Scott P. said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 9:10 am

    My take on this is that the renter, with some Chinese background or connections, craves anonymity and thought that putting this on his sign and replying to the owner like that would help him achieve it.

    How does putting up a sign give you more anonymity than not putting up a sign at all?

  17. Brahmasara said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 9:12 am

    People who see, fly—
    But flighty people have to flap their wings

  18. y said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 9:23 am

    So here is my entire picture.

    The Arrogant Squid is the nickname of this hero and the beloved. He also composed this poem: "看到的人就是飞行的人,但是蝴蝶总是会拍打翅膀." To some extent, he is a poet. But he died from a tragic accident. His lover made this sign to remember him, inspired by this poem by him. Because this poem suggests metamorphosis: a butterfly and a man who can fly. The butterfly may be a metaphor of his soul. The Arrogant Squid's lover believed that his soul has already turned into a butterfly. Mourning for him, she believed that he will return to where he was "East Location," as a butterfly. Maybe "East Location" is where he died. Maybe, this is where they had fond memory together. She believed that he will see this sign.

  19. Doug said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 3:40 pm

    A Google search for Arrogant Squid brings this up:

    I don't know if there's a connection.

  20. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 7, 2020 @ 4:44 pm

    On the whole it seems more likely that the Chinese "poem" is a product of machine translation from English by this playful "owner" or "representative".. and "a butterfly will always flap its wings" (from various butterfly effect commentary on the webs) does give 蝴蝶总是会拍打翅膀 in Google Translate, for what that's worth. So the question might be what English text gave 看到的人就是飞行的人.

  21. Amy Y. said,

    February 10, 2020 @ 9:31 pm

    As far as the "Google-Translated sentence in English" theory mentioned above by J. Smith, after an hour while bored and sick in bed, I've managed to get

    看到的人就是飛行的人 from "The people who see are people who fly"

    Adding the second half of the sentence ("but a butterfly always flaps its wings" or "but butterflies always flap their wings" or similar) is problematic, because Google Translate is a highly chaotic system. Even small changes can alter unrelated words. ( 飛行 is the most problematic word in my experimentation- almost always Google Translate prefers 飛 or 飛翔 ). Nonetheless I'm confident an English sentence could be found that produces both halves, though it might take significantly more effort.

    With a few hours of fiddling with it, I think I could get the whole thing to match, but I haven't the patience or the mental clarity anymore. The full sentence might vary quite significantly , I was able to get 看到的人 from things like "the seen people" in some tests.

    The only question is what that means- in the current form as I have it, it doesn't seem any more coherent than the reading of it as not machine translated…

    Perhaps I'm barking up the wrong tree after all? I don't know any english proverbs, idioms, or witticisms that fit the pattern of "seen people/people who see/seeing people" "are [just/only/ø]" "those who fly/flying people", though I intend to ask a few natives with high knowledges of these sorts of things.

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