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Story Behind the Idiom: 画蛇添足 – The dangers of showing off

This is the first 成语 backstory I recall reading in class. It’s about a guy who can’t help but flaunt his superior skill in front of others, and the nasty surprise he gets as a result. This is upper-beginner, HSK 4.

Guess it’s idiom week over here. I realized how many of the classic 成语 chéng yǔ I hadn’t gotten to yet, and started rolling through them. This is the first 成语 backstory I recall reading in class. It’s about a guy who can’t help but flaunt his superior skill in front of others, and the nasty surprise he gets as a result. This is upper-beginner, HSK 4.

Some language stuff

This piece in an exercise not in learning nouns and verbs, but in sentence-supporting words, like 还不如 hái bù rú, “might as well”, 于是 yú shì, “and so”, 十分 shí fēn “quite / rather”, 未必 wèi bì, “not necessarily”, and 不料 bù liào, “unexpectedly”. A couple other points:

shéi – This usually means “who”, but in this case, it’s more like “whoever”.

不依 bù yī – To be unwilling to concede a point, to be unwilling to comply or go along with something.

属(谁) shǔ (shéi) – 属 means “to belong to”, in many of the same senses it does in English. “I belong in this family”, “This book belongs to me”, “I belong to this land”… you can use 属 to express all those concepts. But in this case, it’s referring to an object belonging to a person.

不过… 而已。 bú guò … ér yǐ – This sentence structure is similar to “Was only….., that’s all.” As in, “I was only trying to help, that’s all.” Or, “I was just here to grab my stuff is all.”

酒反正你是喝不成了 – Gonna break this one down:
酒 – Wine
反正 – in any case
你 – you
是 – are
喝不成 – unsuitable to drink it / shouldn’t be allowed to drink it
了 – grammar word.

We can see from this that 喝不成 is the hard part here. The character 成 by itself can have broad connotations of something coalescing, or coming together, as in 变成 “to become”,合成 “to compound”, 造成 “to create”. In this case, 你是喝不成 could be understood as “It doesn’t come together that you should drink this”. But “coming together” is used figuratively here, in that an idea which isn’t correct or proper doesn’t “come together”. In English we might say, “It doesn’t square that you should drink this”.

画蛇添足

有个人举办晚会,把一壶酒给客人喝。客人拿着这壶酒,觉得这么多人喝一壶酒,肯定不够,还不如给一个人喝。可是到底给谁好呢?于是,客人商量了一个好主意,就是每个人在地上画一条蛇,先画完了这壶酒就给喝。大家都同意这个办法。

每个客人拿了一根小棍,开始在地上画蛇。有一个人画得很快,他几分钟就把蛇画好了,于是他把酒壶拿了过来。待他要喝酒时,他看见其他人还没把蛇画完,他十分得意地又拿起小棍,自言自语地说:“看我再来给蛇添上几只脚,他们也未必画完。”

不料,这个人给蛇画脚还没完,手上的酒壶便被旁边一个人一把抢了过去,原来,那个人的蛇画完了。

这个给蛇画脚的人不依,说:“我最先画完蛇,酒应该给我喝!”

那个人笑着说:“你到现在还在画,而我已经画完,酒当然是我的!”

画蛇脚的人说:“我早就画完了,现在是趁时间还早,不过是给蛇添几只脚而已。”

那人说:“蛇本来就没有脚,你要给它添几只脚那你就添吧,酒反正你是喝不成了!”

那人很不客气地喝起酒来,那个给蛇画脚的人却看着本属自己而现在已被别人拿走的酒,很后悔。

Show English translation »
There was a man who threw a party, and gave a pot of wine to his guests. The guests took the wine, but felt that with so many people drinking one pot of wine, surely it wouldn’t be enough, and it would be better to give [the whole pot] to one person. But who would be best to give it to? So, the guests discussed it and [came up with] a good idea, which was that everyone should draw a snake on the ground, and whoever finished drawing the snake first, that’s who would be given the wine to drink. Everyone agreed to this solution.

Every guest took up a small stick, and started drawing a snake on the ground. One person drew very fast, and had finished his snake in just a few minutes, so he took up the pot of wine. Just as he was waiting to drink it, he saw the others still hadn’t finished drawing snakes, so feeling very pleased with himself he took up the stick again, and said to himself, “Looks like [if] I give the snake a few feet, they still won’t necessarily be done.”

Unexpectedly, before this person could finish drawing feet on the snake, the wine pot in his hand was snatched away by the man next to him, turns out, that person’s snake was finished.

The person drawing feet on the snake wasn’t having any of that, and said, “I finished the snake first, the wine should be given to me!”

The [other] person said, smiling: “You’re still drawing, but I’ve already finished, of course the wine should be mine!”

The man drawing feet on the snake said: “I finished early, now I’m just taking advantage of the [extra] time, and I’m only giving the snake a few feet is all.”

The [other] person said: “Snake don’t have feet, if you want to give them feet go ahead, at any rate the wine shouldn’t be for you!”

The [other] person rudely drank up the wine, and the person who drew feet on the snake watched as the wine that originally belonged to him was taken by someone else, and [he was full of] regret.

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