To Draw a Snake and Add Feet
In the ancient state of Chu, an official gave a pot of wine to celebrate. With only one pot, however, the men did not think much of having to share it. One man decided that the person finished drawing a snake in the sand first will be the one to enjoy the pot of wine.
They all set about with their drawings when one man finished his snake. As he reached for the pot as a clear winner, he found himself amused that no one else was finished. He boasted that he could draw legs on his snake and still be finished first. He then began drawing legs on his snake, when another man put down his brush and grabbed the pot. When the first man contested this, saying he had finished his snake before, the second man called out the first man's drawing as that of a monster and not a snake, therefor claiming himself as the winner.
This idiom warns that unnecessary work can ruin your results.
Discuss: Have you ever ruined a piece of artwork by continuing to add more and more to it? In what other ways can doing too much ruin something?
An idiom is an expression that is not meant to be taken literally. For example, in English, we often use the expression "It's raining cats and dogs". Obviously, we don't take this expression literally, we come to learn that it means it's raining hard outside.
Though the Chinese have many proverbs and idioms, Chengyu are formalized idioms, usually using only four characters and relating to folktales, classical literature, and historical accounts. The four characters typically state a moral, and in order to properly understand their meaning, it is important to know the story behind them. There are at least 5,000 Chengyu.
To learn about Chinese idioms is to gain another insight into the Chinese culture, their mores, and their history. We will be learning Chengyu, and their related stories, regularly for the rest of our "year in China". I believe the insights we'll gain will highlight many universal facets of human nature within their cultural context.