'A snake wanting to swallow an elephant' can never be content

Zhang Ciyun
Some people are just never satisfied. When they get what they want, they always crave more.
Zhang Ciyun
'A snake wanting to swallow an elephant' can never be content
Li Chaoquan

Chinese people usually use two common idioms to describe a man’s insatiable desires.

One of them is renxin buzu shetunxiang, or literally, “a man’s heart is never content, just like a snake wanting to swallow an elephant.”


rén xīn bù zú shé tūn xiàng

There is abundant folklore about the origin of this saying, all based on a queer phrase about a snake swallowing an elephant in “Shanhaijing,” or “Classic of Mountains and Seas.” This ancient text, which first appeared in the 4th century BC, is a compilation of mythic geography and beasts.

According to one story, the Chinese character xiang in the original saying referred to a prime minister, not an elephant. In Chinese the pronunciation of the character for “elephant” (象) is same as that for “prime minister” (相).

This version recounts how a poor man saved the life of a snake, and to show its gratitude, the reptile promised to make the man’s dreams come true.

The man first asked for clothing and plentiful food. The snake complied. Next, he asked to become a government official, and the snake made that happen. Later, the man wanted to become prime minister, and after the snake delivered that wish, he said he wanted to become emperor.

Fed up with the man’s insatiable desires, the snake ate the man.

The other saying is chizhe wanli, kanzhe guoli, or “while eating from a bowl, one looks at what’s in the pot at the same time.”

In a sense, this Chinese phrase echoes the English proverb: “One’s eyes are bigger than one’s stomach.”


chī zhe wǎn lǐ, kàn zhe guō lǐ

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