Chinese Idioms: Draw a Snake and Add Feet to It(畫蛇添足)

Huà Shé - Tiān Zú
November 14, 2013 Updated: November 14, 2013

During the Warring States period (476–221 B.C.), there was a devout official in the state of Chu.

One day, after completing his worship ceremony to his ancestors, he gave a pot of wine to his attending servants.

However, one pot of wine was not enough for all of them. Suddenly, one man said: “We have just one pot of wine and it’s only enough for one of us. So, let’s compete for it. The first one to finish drawing a snake on the ground will have the wine.”

The official liked the idea and everyone agreed. Using tree branches as drawing tools, all of the servants began to draw snakes in the dirt.

A man, who was artfully skilled, finished his snake first. As the winner, he could claim the pot of wine. However, noticing that the others still hadn’t finished drawing, he became very arrogant and said: “How slow you are! I can even give my snake feet!”

So, he started to add feet to his snake.

Before he could finish, a second man finished his snake and immediately took possession of the pot of wine, saying: “Have you ever seen such a snake? Snakes don’t have feet. How can you add feet to a snake? You are not the first one to finish drawing after all! I win.”

The winner then drank the wine with great joy and the first man could do nothing but watch him enjoy the prize.

The idiom “draw a snake and add feet to it” has now come to mean that doing extra work after one has already satisfactorily completed a task is unnecessary and can ruin the effect of the work. It suggests that added effort can be superfluous and detract from the goal.

It is also used to describe a situation in which one adds more description after one has already explained something quite clearly.

The moral of this story is that sometimes going too far can be as bad as not going far enough!