淹耳盗铃 – yan3er3dao4ling2
Literal meaning of each character – cover/shut – ear(s) – steal – bell
When I first looked this idiom up in the dictionary it was defined as “decieve oneself”. This is of course a correct definition but when I analysed the meaning of each individual character I realised their must be a story behind this idiom about stealing a bell. Because what do the above words have to do with deceiving oneself ?
This is something you can infer with any Chinese idiom. Some of them have obvious meanings whereas idioms like this don’t have an obvious explanation but have a story behind them.
After doing a little bit if research I learned that there is a story about a family by the name of “Fan”. They had a bell that a thief wanted to steal. His method was to smash the bell (I don’t know why – what use is a smashed up bell?) so that he could carry it. When he hit the bell it naturally made a big noise so the thief foolishly plugged up his ears thinking it would muffle the sound. Of course when he continued to hit the bell it drew the attention of the neighbours and he was caught in the act.
Therefore this idiom describes when someone similarly, foolishly deceives themself in whatever situation.