Modesty: Chinese Idiom and Philosophy from Confucius and Lao Tzu


In the first century of Han Dynasty (206 B.C.–220 A.D.), the Chinese empire explored Central Asia and connected the east part of the Silk Road. In Afghanistan an ambassador found there might be a direct connection between Southwest China and India. Later the exploration to India brought an interesting idiom: The Conceited King of Yelang (Ye Lang Zi Da).

The Conceited King of Yelang is used to refer those who are capable of nothing yet are conceited. Today many Chinese still frequently use it in their daily lives.

Idiom and Ancient China: Han Dynasty Emperor and Yelang

In Daxia Kingdom (Today’s Afghanistan), ambassador of Han Dynasty Zhang Qian saw clothes and bamboo staffs made in Southwest-China Sichuan province. Local people said they bought the products from Sindhu (ancient India), which suggested there could be a shortcut between Southwest China and India. When he was back he reported this to the Martial Emperor of Han Dynasty.

In 122 B.C., Martial Emperor sent ambassadors to Dian and Yelang, today’s Southwest-China Yunnan province, to find a new way to India. Small though his country was, the King of Dian asked the ambassadors: “Which is bigger, Han or Dian?” The King of Yelang asked the same question too. Yelang always thought it was the strongest kingdom and was very warlike. In 28-25 BC, Yelang launched a war on two neighboring kingdoms, and Han Dynasty took the chance to conquer this conceited country.

Ancient India and China Relations: Buddhism Entered China

A few years later (about 120 B.C.), Martial Emperor conquered Xiongnu, a confederation of nomadic tribes in Central Asia. His generals brought back two figures of Buddha. This was the first time Chinese history recorded Buddha. Though Han Dynasty never found the shortcut to India, Buddhism entered China through the Silk Road before the Christian era.
I Ching, Confucius Analects and Tao Te Ching Philosophies: Modesty Quotes

This idiom is very popular because Chinese philosophies and religions highly commend modesty and humility while they despise self conceit. “Carrying an unfilled vessel is better than taking a full one,” said the great thinker Lao Tzu in Tao Te Ching. According to the philosophy of Taoism, Yelang ruined because it was a full vessel (conceited, arrogant and belligerent).

The collection of great thoughts I Ching and Analects of Confucius also have a same philosophy. “Qian (modesty and humility) creates success,” said the Hexagram and Trigram 15 of I Ching; “Self conceit loses and modesty benefits,” said Confucius in the Analects.


  1. Unkown, I Ching (before 600 B.C.)
  2. Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching (about 500 B.C.)
  3. Confucius and his students, Analects of Confucius (about 450 B.C.–250 B.C.)
  4. Sima Qian, Records of the Grand Historian (104 B.C.–91 B.C.)
  5. Ban Biao, Ban Gu, Ban Zhao, Ma Xu, Book of Han (about 50 A.D.–94 A.D.)
  6. Wei Shou, Book of Wei (551 A.D.–555 A.D.)