In a week headlined by President Trump’s historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, it was another Trump that “exhausted the brain cells of Chinese internet users” according to one Sina Weibo user.
Hours before the American and North Korean leaders sat down in Singapore, the president’s daughter, Ivanka Trump, baffled internet users by posting a tweet quoting an old Chinese proverb; or so she claimed.
Sent to her fan base of over five million followers, Ivanka noted: “ ‘Those who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt those doing it’ – Chinese Proverb.” (The ponderous tweet was thought to be directed at critics of her father’s summit with Kim.)
Despite Twitter being blocked in China, screenshots of the tweet went viral on Chinese social media and prompted a huge debate about the proverb’s origin. Thousands were soon on the hunt to find where it came from. Netizens set up forums and threads on weibo searching for the supposedly ancient saying. Sina’s own news channel joined in, posting on its official social media account: “Our editor really can’t think of exactly what proverb this is. Please help!”
Results were inconclusive with no one able to perfectly match the tweet to a known proverb. This was later confirmed by UK newspaper The Independent which claimed that “multiple experts and historians from East Asian cultures could not confirm its authenticity”.
“It makes sense, but I don’t know which proverb it is,” claimed one weibo user.
Some netizens did come close, however, with a few suggesting similarities to a quotation from The Book of Lord Shang: “Those who accomplish great things do not seek the opinions from the ordinary.”
Others claimed it had a resemblance to other popular Chinese sayings such as “Don’t give advice while watching others play a chess game”.
With no universally acceptable answer, many broached their own theories, claiming Ivanka “made it up” or “maybe she saw it in a Panda Express fortune cookie”.
Others such as the comedian Jenny Yang took offence and used it as a way of mocking the president’s daughter, tweeting “Anything sounds more important with quotation marks and a generic Chinese person saying it – Asian Proverb”.
Despite the scouring of Chinese literature, the real origin of Ivanka’s proverb may not have been so Chinese after all.
According to the Quote Investigator, an internet site that looks for the origins of quotations, the phrase might even have been coined by Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw a century ago.
In spite of the furore, Ivanka neither deleted the tweet nor commented on the reaction. But given her daughter is learning Chinese, maybe she should ask her advice before citing another proverb in the future…
For a comprehensive list of idioms from China, see our book ‘300 Chinese Proverbs’ on our website at this URL:
© ChinTell Ltd. All rights reserved.
Exclusively sponsored by HSBC.
The Week in China website and the weekly magazine publications are owned and maintained by ChinTell Limited, Hong Kong. Neither HSBC nor any member of the HSBC group of companies ("HSBC") endorses the contents and/or is involved in selecting, creating or editing the contents of the Week in China website or the Week in China magazine. The views expressed in these publications are solely the views of ChinTell Limited and do not necessarily reflect the views or investment ideas of HSBC. No responsibility will therefore be assumed by HSBC for the contents of these publications or for the errors or omissions therein.