Story Behind the Idiom: 夜郎自大 – Thinking too highly of oneself

Here we’ll cover the back story behind the idiom “夜郎自大”, or “Yelang thinks highly of itself”. This idiom one refers to someone who has a high, but misguided, opinion of their own worth. Stick this one in the language bank for when you need to take someone down a peg (preferably while stroking your fu manchu and calmly catching flies with your chopsticks).

I learned a new word on this one: 统治 tǒng zhì. Which brings the total number of “tongzhi” words (tonal differences aside) I know up to three.

We’ve got:
同志 – tóng zhì or “Comrade” (and in Chinese slang this also means “a homosexual”, though if you keep an eye on the Chinese news you’ll see that that one of the more reputable local dictionaries refused to include that definition though it’s in common use)

通知 tōng zhī – To notify, give notice

And now, 统治 tǒng zhì – To rule over (a kingdom / country)

Let us hope there aren’t any more configurations of that sound.





Show English translation »
During the Han Dynasty, in the southwest there was a small country called Yelang, and although it was an independent nation, its territory was small, there weren’t many citizens, and its products were pitifully few. Because it was the largest kingdom in the near area, the Yelang king who’d never left his own country thought the country he ruled was the biggest on earth.

One day, the king of Yelang was on a national border inspection tour with his troops, when he pointed in front of him [to neighboring country] and said, “Which country is bigger?” In order to serve their own interests and make the king happy, the troops said, “Of course Yelang is bigger!” They walked along, and the king once again lifted up his head, gazed at the big mountain in the distance and asked: “Is there a taller mountain than this anywhere on earth?” And his men answered: “No, there’s no mountain taller than this one on earth.” After a while, they reached the river side, and the king asked again: “I think this is the world’s longest river.” And all his men said in unison “The king speaks truly.” After this, the ignorant king believed even more firmly that Yelang was the world’s biggest country.

Then one day, the Han Dynasty dispatched an envoy to Yelang, and en route they encountered the neighboring kingdom DianGuo, and the King of Dian asked the emissary: “If you compared the Han Dynasty and my Kingdom, which one would be bigger?” The emissary listened in astonishment, as he’d never have thought this small a country thought it could compare itself to the Han Dynasty. But he really never could have suspected that when he got to Yelang, the prideful and ignorant king who didn’t know that the kingdom he ruled was about the size of one Han county, would ask with an exaggerated opinion of his own worth, “Which is bigger: the Han Dynasty or my country?”

14 replies on “Story Behind the Idiom: 夜郎自大 – Thinking too highly of oneself”

Yes, I like this one, though I’ve heard it recently too. I think I might have seen it in a language learning video? I’ll have to try to dig that up.

Talk about bad English grammar in that comment –
I would be interested if you could recommend some ‘Chinese’ language learning videos, haha.

I don’t quite understand why the story involved the Dian King. Is it to show that all the Kings in the Han Empire are all ignorant as to the size of their kingdom?

No, I think that’s to show how small Yelang is – it’s saying that Yelang is way smaller than the kingdom of Dian, so I’m going to assume that’s a comparative device.

I don’t think that explanation makes sense. In the first paragraph it says that Yelang is the largest country in the region or area:


In the last paragraph it states that Dian neighbors (i.e. is in the region of) Yelang:


So, as Dian neighbors Yelang, and Yelang is the largest kingdom in the area, then Yelang must be larger than Dian!

@Sherm: Yeah, I also didn’t get the Dian King bit. I didn’t see it as necessary and it just confused me in the first reading.

PS Kendra, this site is amazing! Please keep it up!

Cool story, but if I was the king I would at least go out of the country to make sure because you never know if someone is lying. /=|. ( sorry I don’t get emoji.) =^

Aaannyyy wwwaayyy’sss thanks a lot for all these they are awsome
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