In honors of the year of the snake which has just commenced, this month’s Tasteful Expressions post will be and extended lesson about snakes.
Snake in modern Chinese is 蛇 (pronounced shé), but in ancient Chinese it was written only 它 (pronounced tā) without the 虫 (chóng) radical which indicates reptiles, things that crawl or creature in generals if you go back long enough.
In ancient China the common greeting between friends was 无它乎 (wú tā hu) which means ‘no snakes, right?’ . Back in those days people lived in caves and low houses so you’re basically wishing them a clean and snake-less environment. Up until a decade ago it was still common to greet friends 你吃了吗 (nǐ chī le ma) or ‘have you eaten yet?’ as a way to express your concern about their health. This form of greeting is a reminder of a painful era of droughts and famines China suffered from in the not so distant past. In fact, you can still see old people greet each other with ‘have you eaten yet’. A couple of years ago I asked a young taxi driver if ‘have you eaten yet’ is still common among people his age and he jokingly replied: “Yes, if we meet in a public toilet”.
Speaking of snakes and ‘have you eaten yet’, if you want to try some snake meat the best you need to go to is Guangdong Province in the south of China.
There’s a common saying in China about the people of Guangdong Province: “Guangdong people will eat anything with wings but airplanes and anything with legs but furniture”. This saying actually leaves snakes out of the equation because they don’t have legs nor wings.
The fact snakes don’t have legs is very important for the idiom of today’s lesson. 画蛇添足 (huà shé tiān zú) literally means drawing a snake and adding legs. This expression comes in handy quite often as it is used to imply the needlessness of overdoing something. It’s similar to the English expression ‘to go overboard’ and the word ‘overkill’. Just like ‘refrain from eating for fear of choking’ this idiom is also the moral of an ancient tale with somewhat far fetched plot:
A group of people was rewarded by their lord with a small bottle of wine after they helped him to hold a ceremony for his ancestors. Since there was only a small portion of wine they thought it would be better if one of them drank the whole thing rather than everyone just having a very small and unsatisfying sip. How did decide which one of them will be the lucky fellow? Drawing straws? Rock paper scissors? Nope. One of them suggested each will draw a snake on the ground and whoever finished first will get to enjoy the fine liqueur. This totally reasonable and relevant challenge was accepted by all of them and so the drawing match began. One of them was way quicker than the others and his snake was done while the others were still only half way through. He was about to claim the beverage to himself when all of a sudden he thought to him self: “why don’t I add legs to my snake and make it more beautiful”. He did exactly that but at that very moment one of the other guys was done as well and claimed the bottle to himself. “Wait wait!” the first guy said “I was done way before you, look!”. They all looked at the first guy’s snake and said: “Since when do snakes have legs? That’s not a snake!”. The poor guy was disqualified and the second guy won the prize.
You think I’m making this up? Take a look at this educational cartoon for Chinese kids I found online. You can also hear the expression for yourself and learn how to pronounce it accurately.
You got to admire the narrator arsenal of voices.
To learn more about the snake’s part in Chinese culture and for more idioms with snakes see this post from The World of Chinese.