Ivanka Trump’s tweet about 'Chinese proverb' sends countless people down digital rabbit hole

Social media users in China have tried to guess the proverb Ms Trump intended to quote, as the one she used likely does not exist

Chris Riotta
New York
Tuesday 12 June 2018 20:14 BST
Ivanka Trump's 'proverb' tweet has caused quite a stir
Ivanka Trump's 'proverb' tweet has caused quite a stir ( Larry French/Getty Images for USOC)

Ivanka Trump may want to double check her sources the next time she tweets, after a message about a ‘Chinese proverb’ led to a frantic - and unsuccessful - search to find its origins.

President Donald Trump's daughter and White House senior adviser posted the message to her Twitter account just before President Donald Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. She wrote: “Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it,” attributing the quote to a Chinese proverb.

The only problem? It doesn’t appear her tweet actually derived from ancient Chinese scriptures — rather, it may have originated in the United States during the early 1900s.

Ms Trump’s tweet to her over five million followers sent countless users on the popular Chinese social media platform Weibo and US-based forum Huaren down digital rabbit holes, along with researchers at numerous news outlets. After hours of searching, it appeared no one had located the original proverb, as multiple experts and historians of East Asian cultures told The Independent they could not confirm its authenticity.

“Nothing immediately comes to mind,” said Moss Roberts, professor of East Asian studies at New York University. “Somewhat related is the description of Confucius: ‘He knows it can't be done, but he keeps trying to do it all the same.’”

Chen Gao, senior Chinese language lecturer at New York University said that the post led to plenty of jokes from China.

“Many Chinese started joking about their own Chinese language skills, because they can't think of any old sayings with the English equivalents,” Ms G said. “Later when people found out the ‘Chinese proverb’ Ivanka quoted doesn't exist, they didn't take it too seriously... Some said, ‘maybe Ivanka saw it on a fortune cookie,’ which despite the name isn't of Chinese origin either.”

Several Weibo users posted Chinese proverbs that appeared to be at least somewhat similar to the quote in Ms Trump’s tweet. “It's better to knit a fishnet instead of standing by the river and hoping for fish,” one read. ”Don't give advice while watching others playing a chess game,” said another.

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Still, a quick Google search of the quote yields investigative research debunking claims that it was translated from a Chinese proverb. The first link comes from QuoteInvestigator.com, and explores the statement being printed in American newspapers as early as 1903. Meanwhile, researchers have been exploring the quote for decades, often finding claims that it was created by playwright George Bernard Shaw. However, it is unclear whether he ever actually used it in his writings.

“Because of the deep, profound and mysterious cultural messages attached to Chinese proverbs, casually referencing them can make one sound wise,” Ms Gao said. “Chinese proverbs are often presented using simple language, but convey complex ideas. Chinese people welcome and usually give credit to foreigners for their efforts to learn or use Chinese language, even if some quotes are not of Chinese origin.”

Others were less than impressed. This was perhaps summed up best by Chinese literature scholar Brendan O’Kane who tweeted shortly after Ms Trump's post went viral: “You can call any old s*** a Chinese proverb on the internet.”

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