Lighting a candle for a blind man, adding legs to a snake

Zhang Ciyun
Truncated witticisms point out how we often waste our time on superfluous activities.
Zhang Ciyun
Lighting a candle for a blind man, adding legs to a snake
Li Chaoquan

In English, there are several quite common sayings that describe unnecessary actions, such as “carrying coals to Newcastle,” “gilding the lily,” “over-egging the pudding” and “putting butter on bacon.”

In Chinese, a few colorful expressions carry similar meanings. Here are two examples.

One is xiazidiandeng baifeila, or “lighting a candle for a blind man,” to describe sheer waste.


xiā zi diǎn dēng bái fèi là

This expression represents a special form of ancient Chinese language, which is called xiehouyu, or literally “words after a pause.”

Xiehouyu is a short, funny and figurative sentence consisting of two parts: the former part presents a scenario and the latter part provides the rationale. The second part is usually uttered after a pause, or sometimes left out altogether, inviting listeners to guess the intended meaning of the allegory presented in the first part.

This truncated witticism is similar to English speakers uttering just the first part of a saying, such as “speak of the devil” or “an apple a day.”

Another Chinese xiehouyu, which reads tuokuzifangpi duociyiju, literally means “taking off one’s pants to fart,” connoting the pointlessness of such an action.


tuō kù zi fàng pì duō cǐ yī jǔ

Some people consider this expression too vulgar to be cited in a polite company, so they resort to the Chinese idiom huashe tianzu, or “to draw a snake and add feet to it.”

Vulgar or cultured, both sayings point to the same futility of completely superfluous actions.

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