Chinese Chengyu – 畫蛇添足 | Drawing a Snake and Adding Legs To It

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Animal Chengyu – Drawing a snake and adding legs to it?

Animal Chinese Chengyu 画蛇添足 (huà shé tiān zú ) breaks down to drawing (画 huà ) snake (蛇shé) add (添tiān) legs/feet (足 zú). In English, we would say “drawing the snake and adding legs to it” or simply “adding legs to a snake.”

This chéngyǔ comes from a famous Chinese story from the Warring States (战国 Zhànguó) period. A large household held a ceremony for their ancestors. The master of the house gave a jug of wine (红酒 hóngjiǔ) to his servants (仆人 púrén) for their help in preparing the ceremony. However, there wasn’t enough wine for all the servants. To solve the matter, the servants decided to have a contest; everyone would draw a picture of a snake, and whoever finished a good picture first would get the wine.

The contest began and fierce drawing ensued. After a short time, one of the servants completed his drawing, looked around and saw that all the others had not finished. Happily, the servant grabbed a jug of wine and then proceeded to add feet to his snake drawing in a show of bravado.

When the second servant finished his drawing, he looked at the first picture and proclaimed “You fool, snakes don’t have feet! Therefore, you have not drawn a snake.” He then took the wine out of the first servants’ hand and drank it down.

Nowadays, the chengyu “adding feet to a snake” means that you are doing unnecessary work that is actually ruining your result. Editors may use this phrase when their writers or journalists are getting too far off the main point of an article. Project managers may use this phrase when the engineers have gone a bit overboard with their designs.


画蛇添足 huà shé tiān zú Drawing a snake and adding legs to it
huà v. painting
shé n. snake
tiān v. Add
n. foot
战国 zhànguó n. Warring States
仆人 púrén n. servants
红酒 hóngjiǔ n. wine

Here is another ChengYu for Chinese language learning related to animals you might interest in 狗急跳牆, 守株待兔.

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