2013 Lunar Chinese New Year – Year of the Snake — symbols or symbolic meanings of snake in Chinese culture, also famous Mandarin Chinese snake idioms, proverbs with pinyin and English translation

Dear readers: belated happy 2013 Lunar Chinese New Year to you.

In Chinese culture, 蛇 shé (snake) is a symbol of intelligence, charm, and even auspiciousness. You might wonder why horrible snakes have such positive symbolic meanings.

In Chinese mythology, 伏羲 Fuxi and 女娲 Nüwa are like the Chinese Adam and Eve: Nüwa was a goddess who is known for creating mankind and repairing the wall of heaven; her husband Fuxi was the first of the Three Sovereigns (三皇 sānhuáng) of ancient China as well as a culture pioneer who was praised to be the inventor of writing, fishing, and trapping. In an Eastern Han dynasty (206 – 220 A.D.) mural in Shandong province, Nüwa and Fuxi were pictured as having human face and upper body, yet with snake like tails interlocked.

Besides the mythology reason, maybe the positive symbolic meanings about snake are also related to the physical similarities between dragons and snakes. For some people, snakes are considered as little dragons. It is highly likely that originally, the images of dragons were developed from snakes starting from the ancient beginning. The relation of dragons and snakes is so close that even in Chinese zodiac, the Year of the Dragon is tightly followed by Year of the Snake.

According to Chinese astrology, the Year of the Snake and the people who are born in the year are associated with the traits of snake, so it is not hard to tell that: snake people will be thinking like a snake and act like a snake too. According to Chinese Zodiac, people born in the year of the snake, are believed to be intuitive, cunning, charming and stylish; they are thoughtful, intuitive, so they are not downright outspoken for they always think before they act, and have meticulous manners or even bewitching or beguiling appearances. Snake people have very complicated thinking and great patience, but once they set their mind, they will act quickly, just like snakes move at lightning speeds to strike their prey.

Let’s learn some Chinese idioms and proverbs about snakes. Chinese text, pinyin, English translation and MP3 recording are provided to help you better understand them.

1. 画蛇添足
画 (verb, paint or draw) 蛇 (noun, snake) 添 (verb, add) 足 (noun, leg)
huà shé tiān zú
Literally: draw legs on a snake.
Moral: Don’t overdo something.

Chinese definition:
画蛇时添上脚。喻指徒劳无益;多此一举
huà shé shí tiān shàng jiǎo . yù zhǐ tú láo wú yì ;duō cǐ yī jǔ
When (a person) drew a snake, he or she added a leg to it. It is used metaphorically to refer ( a person) wasted a lot of effort on something while gained no benefits at all; to do more than it is required.

English equivalent: to gild the lily.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
很多人做事时,不经思考,常常出现画蛇添足,多此一举的情形。
hěn duō rén zuòshì shí , bù jīng sīkǎo , chángcháng chūxiàn huàshétiānzú , duōcǐyījǔ de qíngxing .
Often, when many people did things, they tended to do it without thinking, thus, the situation of ending up overdoing things happened often.

2. 一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳
一(number, one) 朝 (noun, morning) 被 (passive tense marker = v+ed) 蛇 (noun, snake)咬 (verb, bite),十 (ten) 年 (year) 怕 (fear) 井 (noun, well) 绳 (noun, rope)
yī cháo bèi shé yǎo , shí nián pà jǐng shéng.
Literally:
Once a person got bitten by snake, for ten years (he or she) will be scared of the rope of wells. (For the shape of snake is like the rope of wells. Ancient Chinese people drank water from wells, they tied a thick rope to the wooden bucket and threw the bucket to the well to get water, then pull the rope up to get the bucket out of water.)

Chinese definition:
比喻在某件事情上吃过苦头,以后一碰到类似的事情就害怕。
bǐyù zài mǒu jiàn shìqing shàng chī guo kǔ tóu , yǐhòu yī pèngdào lèi shìde shìqing jiù hàipà .
The metaphor is used to refer to a person who suffered bitterness due to certain thing before, thus, afterwards, whenever he or she encountered similar things, he or she always was afraid of them.

English counterpart / equivalent:
Once bitten, twice shy.
A burnt child dreads the fire.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
他投资股票失败。一朝被蛇咬,十年怕井绳 。从此他再也不敢从事股票交易了。
tā tóuzī gǔpiào shībài . yī cháo bèi shé yǎo , shí nián pà jǐng shéng . cóngcǐ tā zài yě bù gǎn cóngshì gǔpiào jiāoyì le .
He failed on investing in stocks. Once bitten, twice shy. From then on,he no longer dared to engage in stock trading.

3. 虎头蛇尾
虎 (noun, tiger) 头 (noun, head) 蛇 (noun, snake) 尾 (noun, tail)
hǔ tóu shé wěi
Literally: tiger’s head, snake’s tail.
Figuratively: a strong start but weak finish.

Chinese definition:
头大像老虎一样;尾巴像蛇一样细。比喻做事有始无终。
tóu dà xiàng lǎohǔ yīyàng ;wěiba xiàng shé yīyàng xì . bǐyù zuòshì yǒu shǐ wú zhōng .
The head is like a tiger’s, while the tail is like a snake’s. It is used metaphorically to refer to fail to carry things through.

English counterpart / equivalent: Peter out after a good start.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
她的科展作品,虎头蛇尾,没拿到好名次。
tā de kē zhǎn zuòpǐn , hǔ tóu shé wěi , méi ná dào hǎo míngcì .
Her science fair project started magnificently but ended it lousily, thus, did not win any good places.

4. 不辨龙蛇
不 (negate word, not) 辨 (verb, distinguish) 龙 (noun, dragon) 蛇 (noun, snake)
bù biàn Lóng Shé
Literally: Can’t distinguish dragons from snake.
Figuratively: Can’t tell good from bad.

Chinese definition:
是龙是蛇不加分辨。形容不分优劣,不识好坏
shì lóng shì shé bù jiāfēnbiàn . xíngróng bù fēn yōuliè, bù shí hǎo huài
Can’t tell the differences between dragons and snakes. It is used to describe a person can’t tell excellence from mediocrity and doesn’t recognize good or bad.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
那个法官,把好人当坏人,把好人抓进监狱,让坏人逍遥法外,真是是非不清,不辨龙蛇啊!
nà ge fǎguān , bǎ hǎorén dāng huàirén , bǎ hǎorén zhuā jìn jiānyù , ràng huàirén xiāoyáo fǎ wài , zhēnshì shìfēibùqīng , bù biàn lóng shé ā !
That judge treated good guys as bad guy, put good guys in jail, and let bad guys go unpunished — This really is not knowing right from wrong, not able to distinguish dragons from snakes!

5. 一蛇吞象
一 (number, one) 蛇 (noun, snake) 吞 (verb, swallow) 象 (noun, elephant)
yī shé tūn xiàng
Literally: A snake (wants to) swallow an elephant.
Figuratively: insatiable thinking or greedy desire.

The idiom 一蛇吞象 has a longer version — 人心不足蛇吞象 rénxīn bùzú shé tūn xiàng A man who is never content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant.

Chinese definition:
一条蛇想吞吃一条大象。比喻人心不足,贪得无厌
yī tiáo shé xiǎng tūn chī yī tiáo dàxiàng . bǐyù rénxīn bùzú , tānděiwúyàn.
A snake wants to devour an elephant. It is metaphorically used to mean people’s hearts are too greedy, avaricious and insatiable.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
他只有一个非常小的房子,可是他却妄想去偷一套巨大的家具。这种举止真可谓人心不足蛇吞象啊!
tā zhǐyǒu yī ge fēicháng xiǎo de fángzi , kěshì tā què wàngxiǎng qù tōu yī tào jùdà de jiājù . zhèzhǒng jǔzhǐ zhēn kěwèi rénxīn bùzú shé tūn xiàng ā !
He only has a very tiny house, however, he has delusional thinking about stealing a giant set of furniture. This kind of behavior really can be called as: A man who is never content is like a snake trying to swallow an elephant.

6. 蛇蝎心肠
蛇 (noun, snake) 蝎 (noun, scorpion) 心 (noun, heart) 肠 (noun, intestines)
shé xiē xīncháng
Literally: With a heart as venomous as snakes and scorpions.
Figuratively: evil heart.

Chinese definition:
蝎:一种毒虫。有蛇蝎一样狠毒的心肠。形容人心狠毒。
xiē : yī zhǒng dú chóng . yǒu shé xiē yīyàng hěndú de xīncháng. xíngróng rénxīn hěndú .
Scorpion: a poisonous bug. Have a heart as venomous as snakes and scorpions. (The idiom) is used to describe the viciousness of people’s hearts.

Sample usage of the Chinese proverb:
那个女人有着蛇蝎心肠。她总是想尽办法害人。你得提防她。
nà ge nǚrén yǒuzhe shé xiē xīncháng. tā zǒngshì xiǎngjìn bànfǎ hài rén . nǐ děi tífǎng tā .
That woman has a heart as venomous as snakes and scorpions. She always thinks all she can to harm people. You have to keep an eye on her and be cautious.

Sorry that most of the idioms or proverbs or sayings about snakes all have negative meanings. In the Year of the Snake, especially during the first lunar month, it would be good for you to say some nice words to wish people have a great year to come. The following are some lucky words you can say to wish your friend lucky or healthy.
祝你新年快乐,身体健康,万事如意,蛇年行大运!
Zhù nǐ Xīnnián kuàilè , shēntǐ jiànkāng , wàn shì rúyì , shé nián xíng dà yùn .
Wish you happy New Year, (have) a healthy body, all things will turn out as you wish, and have the best luck in the Year of the Snake!

In Chinese, there is a very famous folktale called : The Legend of the White Snake 白蛇传 Bai she zhuan . The Legend of the White Snake, also known as Madame White Snake, which existed in oral tradition long before any written compilation. The folktale has since been presented in a number of major Chinese operas, films and television series. The following is the ending song of one of the TV drama series about this legend. For more information about the Legend of White Snake, see
http://www.chinesetolearn.com/?p=1376

The legend of white snake

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2 Responses to 2013 Lunar Chinese New Year – Year of the Snake — symbols or symbolic meanings of snake in Chinese culture, also famous Mandarin Chinese snake idioms, proverbs with pinyin and English translation

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