Chinese Idiom Explained: 掩耳盗铃

May 02, 2020

掩耳盗铃 (yǎn ěr dào líng) is a popular Chinese idiom that comes from 吕氏春秋 Lǚ shì chūn qiū (Mr. Lu’s Spring and Autumn Annals), and can be literally translated as “To cover one’s ear while stealing a bell” in English.

In this blog, we want to share with you both the Chinese and the English retelling of the original story behind 掩耳盗铃 (yǎn ěr dào líng), what it means, as well as how to use it in a sentence.

Let’s dive in!


During the Spring and Autumn period, there was a battle between the Zhao and Fan clans, two official families in the state of Jin. During this time, someone took the opportunity to burgle the Fan family home. Once he got to the door, he was immediately attracted by the large bell at the front door.


This bell was made of the highest grade of bronze, with an exquisite style and pattern. The burglar was over-joyed and wanted to take this magnificent bell home. But this bell was not only large but also heavy and there was no way to move it. He thought it over and decided to break the bell into little pieces, and carry it home little by little!


He found a hammer, and with all his might started hacking at the bell. The bell rang with a loud “dong” which startled the burglar! He was terrified!


It’s over, it’s over! What if someone heard that - wouldn’t they just tell everyone I’m here stealing the bell? His heart was racing, he threw himself onto the bell, with both arms wide open trying to cover the bell’s racket, but how could he really cover the sound? The ringing of the bell lingered and spread everywhere!


The burglar’s fear grew with the sound of the bell. Without realizing, he pulled his hands back and covered his own ears. Eh? The sound of the bell has lessened! Great! The burglar was over the moon! If he covered his ears, he made the sound of the bell go away!


Immediately, he found two pieces of cloth to stuff into his ears — now he definitely couldn't hear the bell!


So, the burglar began to hammer into the bell, one blow after the other. The sound of the bell travelled so far that people began swarming over like a hive of bees, apprehending the bell burglar!

This idiom is a metaphor for those that lie to themselves and come up with ways to cover up a problem that clearly cannot be covered up.

yǎn (to cover)

ěr (ear)

dào (steal)

líng (ring)

例句 (Example Sentences):

Zhè jiàn shì zǎoyǐ shì jiāyùhùxiǎole, ér nǐ hái zài yǎn'ěrdàolíng, qǐ bùshì zìqīqīrén.
Everyone already knows about this problem, and yet you still bury your head in the sand, aren’t you just hurting yourself and others?

Wúlùn xuéxí háishì gōngzuò zhōng, wǒmen dōu yīng shíshìqiúshì, bùkě yǎn'ěrdàolíng, zìqīqīrén.
Regardless of whether it is studying or working, we should all be faithful to the facts, and not bury our heads in the sand, hurting ourselves.

How would you use the idiom? Is there a similar one in your country?