Background: My friend and I were talking about how different countries cope with the pandemic. We found that a few politicians around the world didn’t take the coronavirus seriously enough at first and pretended that it was only a small problem. My friend described them as “掩耳盗铃”.
Pinyin: yan er dao ling
Transliteration: Cover your ears and steal the doorbell.
Informant’s explanation of the phrase:
I think it came from a story. Well I’m not sure if it really happened, probably just a fable. A thief went to another person’s place because he wants their doorbell somehow. He tries to steal it, but he realized the doorbell would ring! So his genius solution is to cover his ears and then steal the bell. His logic is like he wouldn’t hear a sound, so other people won’t either. This dumbass got caught of course.
Context: As it was used by the informant in describing politicians who refused to take action, the proverb is used with irony to describe people who clearly understand what they do is wrong but still carry on with self-deception.
Analysis: This particular form of proverb, 成语 (cheng yu), is very similar to another form of Chinese folk speech, the enigmatic folk similes. Both contain double meanings, with one layer of superficial storyline and a deeper connotation of advise, mockery, or knowledge. The difference, however, is that cheng yu often adhere to a uniform form of strictly four characters. While cheng yu are also proverbs that illustrate folk wisdom, in most cases the user must be familiar with the legend or history they allude to in order to use them in common speech. Cheng Yu thus becomes an identity marker. They reflect the culture, values, and identity of their “folk”, as well as a bigger reservoir of folklores that provide them with derivative connotations.
For a different version of this proverb, see
郑荣萍. “掩耳盗铃.” 中学生英语：少儿双语画刊 5 (2012): 13–13. Print.