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"Draw snake, add feet (画蛇添足)"

Updated: Jun 3, 2023

A famous Chinese "chengyu" (成语), which is a 4 character idiom, is known as 画蛇添足 (hua she tian zu), which is translated into English as "draw snake, add feet".


The "draw snake, add feet" chengyu idiom is used for situations where you go ahead and do more than necessary, only to find that it actually ruins the final result.


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The story behind this chengyu idiom is that once upon a time in China in the ancient city state of Chu (1030 BCE - 223 BCE), a man was paying respects to his ancestors, and many people came to help him (set up the shrines and prepare the rituals etc.).


After the man finished paying respects to his ancestors, he gave the helpers a flask of wine as a reward for helping him out.


There were lots of helpers, and despite getting a reward, they were all despondent.


Why? Because the man had only given all of them ONE flask of wine - that's the modern day equivalent of giving a bottle of red wine to a whole bunch of people! (So stingy wtf...)


No wonder they weren't happy - I mean, would you?


"Geez louise," sighed one of them, "if we split this up, each of us will only be able to drink like 10mL of this wine!"


Another helper suggested, "how about instead of each splitting this flask of wine, we play a game and whoever wins gets the whole flask of wine to himself?"


The others murmured in agreement... and they conjured up a game called "draw snake".


How the game "draw snake" worked was, everyone had to draw a snake. Whoever drew a snake the fastest would win the game and win the flask of wine.


The game then started. Each of the helpers got a stick and began drawing a snake in the dirt.


One of the helpers drew the snake so fast that he finished the game in a flash!


"Ayeeeee, I'm already done!" he exclaimed, "the wine is mine!"


He victoriously claimed the flask of wine, looked at the others, who were still drawing their snakes and thought: "hmm...I've still got lots of time...let's touch up my snake a bit more...add a bit more things to it...give it some mods..."


Wanting to touch up his snake, he proceeded to add some feet to his snake.


Just as he finished drawing the feet on his snake, someone else also finished his snake. This guy stood up, claimed victory and yanked the flask from the first guy's hand!


The first guy was mad, "that's my wine, I won! Give it back!."


The second guy looked at the first guy, then looked at his snake, and laughed: "mate, what you've drawn isn't even a snake! I mean, snakes don't have legs, so it's not a snake, which I means I won!"


The others also agreed with the second guy.


("Yeah he's right... wtf is that...?")


("Bruh, that ain't a snake, that looks like a lizard lol")


The first guy realised what he had, kicked himself for adding the extra feet and watched as the second guy downed the flask of wine in delight.


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So the lesson of the chengyu idiom of "draw snake, add feet" is not do anything more than necessary (e.g. drawing feet on a snake), otherwise it would spoil the result (e.g. losing the draw snake game).


Passed down from ancient times, this chengyu idiom is used widely in the Chinese sphere today, and can be applicable in many day-to-day situations.


E.g. buying an extra item you don't need and burning your wallet in the process, or eating one too many snack bars and going over your calorie count.


Hope you enjoyed my blog post. More about Chinese & East Asian history to come out soon.


In the meantime, please do check out my podcast! And don't forget to subscribe to it and follow my Instagram @bamboohistorypodcast.


K bye.



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