At the end of the Chinese Spring and Autumn period, the state of Jin(晋) was actually controlled by five powerful families, among which Zhi family was the strongest one, and Fan family was its main political opponent.
In 458BC, Zhi family defeated Fan family with the help of the other three families. Like Tywin Lannister destroying the House Reyne of Castamere in the song "The Rains of Castamere", Zhi family almost killed all members of Fan and left nothing but ruins.
A man with sticky fingers, taking advantage of this occasion, sneaked into the house of Fan at night, hoping to steal something. No sooner had he entered the gate, than he saw a huge bronze bell hanging in the front yard.
Since bronze could be directly used as cash at that time, the man was very excited about his finding. He lost no time trying to carry this bell back home, however, which was too heavy to be moved a little.
So the man fetched a big hammer, with which he struck the bell with all his strength.
"Dang!...." the striking made a enormously loud noise which scared the thief terribly. To stop the crashing sound, the man threw himself over the bell and held it tightly with his two arms. But how could the sound of the bell be muffled? The noise still kept drifting melodiously to distant places.
Being tortured by the sound, the man unconsciously shrank back, and stuffed up his ears with his hands. As a result, the frightening sound soon became fainter and fainter and finally died out in darkness. The man became cheerful at once. "Great." he said to himself " The sound of the bell can not be heard when the ears are covered."
He immediately ripped off two pieces of cloth from his shirt and scrolled them into two earplugs. Wearing them, he felt much relieved, then he to strike the bell without any scruples, one blow after another. The resounding sound of the bell woke up all neighbors and was even heard by soldiers patrolling in the distant street. Chasing the sound, they caught him in the act.
The foolish man did not know that the only one who could not hear the sound of the bell was himself when he stuffed his own ears.
Background and Writer Comment:
This idiom story is from "Knowing Yourself (Zi Zhi 自知)", an article of Lu Shi Chun Qiu 《吕氏春秋》, in which the author highlighted that the rulers should know their own shortcomings and errors, and he used this story as a metaphor to criticize some of them who refused to listen to anything negative just like the man in the story blocking his ears from the sound of bell.
Later, people have used the set phrase "plugging one's ears while stealing a bell--Yan Er Dao Ling" to refer to the ignorance and foolishness of the person who deceives himself as well as others.
Its English counterpart is the phrase -- "Cat shuts its eyes while it steals cream".