Chinese Idioms: Invite the Wolf Into the House (引狼入室)
The wolf is one of the world’s most widely dispersed mammals. It is the ancestor of the domestic dog.
There are many different wolf subspecies, however, they are generally ferocious and have very sharp teeth that allow them tear meat from their prey. They are often considered a threat to human beings and domestic animals.
There is a tale about a wolf that spread far and wide in China.
Once upon a time, there was a hard-working shepherd boy. He tended and guarded herds of sheep very well.
One day, he saw a wolf following the herd of sheep but keeping its distance. He became quite alert.
The wolf watched them from a distance on a hillside every day and did nothing to harm them.
The shepherd boy saw no inclination that the wolf was after the sheep, so he gradually relaxed his guard. He even fancied that it might be a shepherding wolf, a kind one that was different from other wolves.
One day, the boy needed to go into town, so he asked the wolf if it would help him by guarding the sheep in his absence.
Very happily, the wolf accepted the task, promising to take good care of the sheep while the boy was away.
The shepherd boy then headed into town. When the wolf was sure that the boy had left, it pounced on the sheep. Having starved for such a long period of time, the wolf sated its hunger as it enjoyed the sheep.
When the shepherd returned, he saw that most of the sheep had been killed and there was blood all over the hillside. He then realized what the wolf had done.
He regretted being tricked very much, but said: “It serves me right! How could I trust a wolf and set a wolf to watch over sheep?”
The above tale was very popular and warned people not to trust someone who is inherently dangerous.
The expression “bring the wolf into the house” first appeared in a script by Zhongming Jia (1) around the end of the Yuan Dynasty (A.D. 1279–1368). It was a warning for people to not open the door to a dangerous foe.
Later, the story became the idiomatic expression 引狼入室(yǐn láng rù shì), which translates as “invite a wolf to enter the house.”
The English equivalent is to set a fox to guard the henhouse. A similar idiom is “a leopard can’t change its spots,” suggesting that people can’t change their essential nature.
Zhongming Jia (贾仲名), A.D. 1343–1422, was a famous writer of drama. He lived during the end of the Yuan Dynasty and the beginning of the Ming Dynasty.