Story Behind the Idiom: 掩耳盗铃 – To bury one’s head in the sand

This fable describes backstory / origination of the idiom 掩耳盗铃 yǎn ěr dào líng, which literally translates as “to plug one’s ears while stealing a bell”, and meaning “to bury one’s head in the sand”, or “to deceive oneself”.

I understand that this story was taken from the collection 吕氏春秋 (“Mr. Lu’s Annals [of the Spring / Autumn Period]”), which is described as “a historical miscellany from the point of view of Qin period merchant and politician 吕不韦 Lu BuWei lǚ bù wéi”




Show English translation »
During the Spring and Autumn period, Nobleman ZhiBo of the Jin state eliminated the Fan clan [in battle]. There was a person who sought to take advantage of the defeated [and thus absent] Fan clan to steal some things from their house, and he saw that in their yard dangled a large bell. The bell was molded from the finest bronze, its shape and design were very fine indeed. The thief was extremely happy, thinking to take this refined bell and carry it back to his own house. But the bell was both big and heavy, and howsoever he tried, he couldn’t move it. He thought and thought, and came up with just one solution, which was to break the bell to bits, then take the pieces separately back to his house.
The thief found a sledgehammer, and swung at the bell with all his might. A loud “gong” sound rang out, startling the thief. The thief panicked, thinking this [enterprise] was spoiled, thinking “that kind of noise is tantamount to telling people that I’m here stealing the bell, isn’t it?” He was worried, and he flung is body at the bell, stretching his arms around it to try to still the sound, but really how could he stop it? The sound went on and on, ringing far and wide.

The longer he heard it, the more afraid he became, and withdrew his hands to press them against his ears with all his strength. “Yi, the sound has lessened, I can’t hear it anymore!” The thief became happy again, “How wonderful! If I cover my ears well, the sound can’t be heard!” covered his ears well, he couldn’t hear the sound at all! He immediately found two pieces of cloth and stopped up his ears, thinking that this way, no one else could hear the bell’s sound either. So he began smashing the bell, hitting it again and again, the ringing of the bell being heard even in far away places. People heard the bells sounds and came in great numbers, catching the thief.

5 replies on “Story Behind the Idiom: 掩耳盗铃 – To bury one’s head in the sand”

Thank you for putting traditonal characters as well as simplified when you hover over the word. It was a great help.I Iearnt traditional, but am trying to learn simplified.

“一声巨响” on the beginning of the 2nd paragraph is translated as “First tone in Mandarin”.

I think 声 should rather be considered as the measure word of sounds, here of 巨响. (一声巨响 means 一个巨响).

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