Chinese Idiom Explained: 画蛇添足

April 05, 2020

"画蛇添足" (huà shé tiān zú) is a popular Chinese idiom that comes from Strategies of the Warring States (战国策 Zhànguó cè), and can be literally translated as “to gild the lily” in English.

In this blog, we want to share with you both the Chinese and the English retelling of the original story behind "画蛇添足" (huà shé tiān zú), what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!


Long ago, a family was living in the Chu state. After making offerings to their ancestors, the family decided to give the people that helped them a drink from the offering vessel. But there were so many people that one vessel of alcohol wasn’t enough for everyone. What could they do? Right then, someone came up with a suggestion – Everyone draws a snake on the floor, whoever can draw the quickest can have the drink. Everyone thought this was a great idea and began to draw.


One of the helpers completed the snake with a flick of the wrist, he picked up the vessel and began to drink. He looked around and saw that the others have not finished drawing yet. He thought to himself: These guys are so slow, even if I added feet to my snake, I’d still be quicker. So with the bottle in one hand, he began drawing the feet with the other.

正在他给蛇画脚的时候,另外一个人已经画好了。那个人马上把酒壶从他手里夺过去,说:”你见过蛇吗?蛇是没有脚的,你为什么要给它添上脚呢?所以第一个画好蛇的人不是你,而是我了!” 那个人说完,就仰起头来,咕咚咕咚把酒喝下去了。

While he was adding the feet, someone else finished drawing. That person instantly grabbed the bottle and said: ‘Haven’t you ever seen a snake before? Snakes don’t have feet, why have you added them? The first to finish an actual snake isn’t you, it’s me!' As soon as he was done talking, he whipped his head back and glugged down the drink.

This story highlights those who do things with unnecessary actions which result in a more significant loss. The idiom references the fact that doing excessive things may cause more harm, as well as twisting reality and fabricating truth.

huà (to draw)

shé (snake)

tiān (to add)


例句 (Example Sentences):

Zhè fú huà yǐjīng hěn wánměile, nǐ jiù bùyào zài huàshétiānzúle.
This painting is already perfect, you don’t need to gild the lily.

Wǒ jiào nǐ qù jiē shàng mǎi cài, kě méiyǒu jiào nǐ zuò cài, zhēnshi huàshétiānzú, duōcǐyījǔ.
I only told you to buy the groceries, I didn’t ask you do cook. This is unnecessary and overkill.

How would you use the idiom? Is there a similar one in your country?