What was he thinking? That’s a question often asked of the unorthodox Tesla CEO Elon Musk – now ranked as the world’s richest man by Bloomberg. But this week the question was a literal one, as millions tried to figure out the meaning of a cryptic tweet.
So what was it that got people, especially in China but also around the world, scratching their heads? It was Musk’s posting on Twitter and Sina Weibo of an ancient poem – in Chinese characters – with absolutely no explanation of why he’d done so or what he intended it to convey. The only addition to the post was the English word “Humankind” (perhaps to indicate who he was speaking to, or maybe to show who he was talking about; see photo of the tweet on next page).
The poem, popularly known as the Seven-Step Verse, goes like this:
“Beanstalks are burned to boil beans. The beans weep in the pot;
We are born of the same root.
Why are we so eager to hurt each other?”
It is said to have been composed by Cao Zhi, a talented poet and the favourite son of Cao Cao, a warlord who laid the foundation for the state of Wei during the Three Kingdoms period in the third century. His elder brother Cao Pi, after becoming the emperor of Wei, saw his sibling as a threat to the throne. As a result Cao Zhi was given a seemingly impossible task to produce a poem about brotherhood without using the word ‘brother’ within the timeframe of walking seven steps, or else he would be executed. Cao Zhi came up with his verse about cooking beans, reducing his brother to tears.
The poem is extremely well known in China but less so outside the Chinese-speaking world. The fact that Musk posted it in its original language meant it was ignored by many English-speaking Twitter users – although news organisations like CNN pondered what the enigmatic tycoon might be up to.
It was Chinese readers, however, that weighed in on social media platforms with by far the widest range of interpretations for the post.
“He is urging us to buy dogecoin,” said one weibo user, pointing to the fact that the word for bean in Chinese (dou) sounds similar to ‘doge’.
There’s something in that: Musk has been a strong proponent of the cryptocurrency, though in recent weeks another canine-themed token, Shiba Inu, has overtaken Dogecoin in value.
Others suggested Musk was alluding to himself and fellow space-obsessed billionaire Jeff Bezos. When Musk took the title of ‘richest man’ from Bezos last month, he tweeted a silver medal emoji aimed at riling the Amazon founder.
Another theory is that the SpaceX founder was responding to the United Nations World Food Programme director David Beasley, who said people like Musk and Bezos should donate more of their wealth to fight global hunger.
In typical combative style Musk had earlier tweeted that he’d sell his Tesla stock and donate $6 billion if Beasley could “describe on this Twitter thread exactly how $6B will solve world hunger”.
Others suspected he was tweeting at global leaders assembling in Glasgow for the COP26 talks on the planet’s climate emergency. Musk has spoken passionately about China’s “aggressive” plans to curb emissions and has called on other countries to do more.
Others offered limerick-style translations about how the California-based Musk didn’t want to pay more tax in the US – as some Democrat politicians have proposed.
Some even offered the possibility that Musk was attempting to cool down heated cross-Strait relations. Former Chinese leader Jiang Zemin, it was noted, quoted the same poem in trying to achieve this end in 2000, using Cao Zhi’s brotherly sentiment to strike a tone of reconciliation.
Public figures in China often cite ancient poems to express controversial or politically sensitive views. Former Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao often put his interpreters under pressure by doing just that during press conferences. That said, when business leaders do it, the gesture can backfire. It created trouble for Meituan founder Wang Xing in May when he cited a 1,000 year-old poem criticising Qin Shi Huang, China’s first emperor. Some saw the post as a rebuke of the current government, leading to difficulties for Wang and a selldown in Meituan shares.
In the case of Musk, there has been no share price backlash. Perhaps in a mischievous way he just wanted to grab more free publicity. “There are normal billionaires and then there is Elon Musk,” posted one confounded Twitter user after seeing the Chinese poem.
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