huà shé tiān zú
To gild the lily; To overdo something; Overkill
Every language has idioms, sayings, or set phrases. Chinese is no different. In Chinese, an idiom is called 成语 (chéng yŭ) and is usually composed of four characters.
Today, we want to share the story behind the popular idiom “画蛇添足” (huà shé tiān zú) with you. This idiom comes from “Strategies of the Warring States”, or Zhan Guo Ce (战国策). It is roughly translated as “Drawing a snake with feet” in English. We have included both the Chinese and the English versions of the story below.
Now, let's find out what it really means…
Back in the day, 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.
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.
This painting is already perfect, you don’t need to gild the lily.
How would you use the idiom?
Is there a similar one in your country?
Let us know in the comments below!
Interested to know more? Check out our other idiom blogs!