During the Warring States Period (475–221 B.C.), there was a minister in the state of Chu named Zhuang Xin.
Zhuang worried when he saw the court officials and the king often indulging in luxuries and excessive pleasures.
One day, Zhuang said to the king of Chu: “Your Majesty, you are always surrounded by ministers who flatter you and try everything to make you happy. You have no time to take care of state affairs and Chu is facing great danger. If no change is made, our state will certainly perish.”
Hearing these words, the king was unhappy and scolded him: “How dare you! You would use such vicious words to curse my country and try to arouse the people’s anger!”
Realizing nothing was going to change, Zhuang asked the king for permission to leave the state for a time. The king allowed it and Zhuang went to the state of Zhao.
A few months later, an army from the Qin state invaded Chu and occupied a large tract of Chu territory. The king of Chu was forced into exile. It was not until then that the Chu king remembered Zhuang’s advice and felt regret for not listening to Zhuang. He sent his men to call Zhuang back.
Having a strong sense of commitment to the state of Chu, Zhuang immediately went back to his king. “It is too late, what can I do now?” asked the king.
Zhuang answered: “Once upon a time, a shepherd found a hole in the sheepfold, but he neglected to repair it. A few days later, several sheep were missing. He then mended the pen. After that, he never lost sheep again. It’s not too late if you mend the sheepfold even after a sheep is missing, your Majesty!”
With the help of Zhuang’s advice on how to restore Chu, the king finally recovered the lost territory.
The idiom 亡羊補牢 (wáng yáng bǔ láo), which is generally translated as “mend the fold after a sheep is lost,” developed from Zhuang’s answer to the king. This story was recorded in an ancient Chinese historical work “Intrigues of the Warring States (1),” which was compiled during the Western Han Dynasty.
It is used to advise someone that it is never too late to take steps to correct mistakes and prevent further losses.
- The book “Intrigues of the Warring States” (戰國策) has also been translated as “Strategies of the Warring States.” It is a renowned ancient Chinese historical work that was compiled during the Western Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–A.D. 23). It reveals historical and social characteristics of the Warring States period.