Beware of a Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: the Ancient Lesson of “笑里藏刀 (Xiào Lǐ Cáng Dāo)”

HSK 3 quiz
When I first decided to learn Mandarin Chinese, it was mostly because of China’s rising economy and all the business opportunities between China and western countries. However, once I began the language learning process, I became much more interested in Chinese culture and history.

This interest led me to read some of the classic books and essay collections, along with more fantastic sagas that we know in the west. Just like Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”, a book that had me fascinated by Chinese philosophy is “三十六计(Sānshíliù Jì) Thirty-Six Stratagems.”(What Is “三十六计 (sānshíliù jì)” in China?)

“Thirty-Six Stratagems” is a collection of strategies for interpersonal conflict that were collected from oral and written resources that have been passed down for centuries. These stories often involve deception to get a wanted outcome. The thirty-six strategies are divided into six groups. In Group 2, strategy  overall, is “笑里藏刀 (xiào lǐ cáng dāo)” which translates to roughly “hide a knife in a smile.” As you can imagine, it involves becoming close with others and then suddenly attacking.

笑里藏刀 (Xiào lǐ cáng dāo) = covering the dagger with a smile; to hide a dagger in a smile; with the murderous intent behind one’s smiles.

笑 (Xiào) = smile. (Learning Point: What Does “笑喷” Mean?)

里 (Lǐ) = inner; liner; lining.

藏 (Cáng) = hide; conceal; hoard.

刀 (Dāo) = knife.

Like all of the 36 strategies, the story has an interesting origin. During the Tang Dynasty (618-907), there was a minister named “李义甫 (Li Yifu).” He was very talented at flattering people, so he climbed in rank and eventually became the prime minister. However, Li was a vicious man. When he talked with people he always wore a sweet smile, but he was conjuring up evil ideas in his mind. His actions reflected the strategy of “笑里藏刀 (xiào lǐ cáng dāo).”

Examples of “笑里藏刀 (xiào lǐ cáng dāo)” in a sentence:

Tā shì yígè xiào lǐ cáng dāo de rén.
She seems to be a friendly person, but she has done many bad things secretly.

Nǐ yídìng yào xiǎoxīn xiào lǐ cáng dāo de rén.
You must be careful of the man who is a wolf in sheep’s clothing.

HSK 3 quiz
1. Which of the following person has the characteristics of the expression “笑里藏刀 (xiào lǐ cáng dāo)?”

A. Li Jun feels happy to hide his knife.
B. Zhou Qiang always smiles when he helps people who are in trouble.
C. Lin Xiaofeng always wore a sweet smile, but he was conjuring up evil ideas in his mind.

―Written by Elena Trevino―

Elena Trevino is a Mandarin Chinese student in Beijing studying the language to get a head start in international trade. She is most interested in seeing how Mandarin is affecting the fashion industry throughout the world as Chinese shoppers are now such a large factor. She is frequently attending fashion industry events in Beijing and throughout China.

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