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Ivanka Trump leads a meeting on human trafficking at the White House May 17, 2017.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images) Ivanka Trump leads a meeting on human trafficking at the White House May 17, 2017.  (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

Ivanka Trump leads a meeting on human trafficking at the White House May 17, 2017. (Win McNamee/Getty Images)

By Lucia Geng June 22, 2018

Ivanka Trump's Chinese proverb ahead of Singapore summit doesn't check out

Ivanka Trump tweeted a subtle dig at critics of her father before he became the first sitting president to meet with a North Korean leader.

"Those who say it can not be done, should not interrupt those doing it," she wrote, referencing a "Chinese proverb" as the source of the quote.

We noticed a lot of confusion on American and Chinese social media platforms about whether there really is a Chinese proverb that says this.

One user on Weibo, China’s most popular social media website, proposed genuine Chinese proverbs resembling Ivanka Trump’s tweet, such as "Those who can’t eat the grapes will call them sour," and the Confucian saying, "That which you would not do yourself, do not force upon others."

The official account of Sina, the tech company responsible for the making of Weibo, posted a translation of Ivanka Trump’s tweet on the platform, followed by a call for assistance: "We really can’t think of what proverb this is. Please help!"

After seeing all the disbelief from netizens around the world, we were curious whether there was any truth to Trump’s attribution of the quote.

After some digging, we found no evidence that the saying is of Chinese origin. The White House did not return a request for clarification.

Questing on Quote Investigator

We started by searching the quote on Google, and found a website that tracks the origin of memorable quotations named Quote Investigator. (We came across the website in our last report on a misattributed quote by Ivanka Trump.)

Garson O’Toole, the founder of Quote Investigator (and whose real name is Gregory F. Sullivan) is a former teacher and research scientist in the Department of Computer Science at Johns Hopkins University. (He told us prefers to use the "distinctive pseudonym" Garson O’Toole in all matters pertaining to quotation tracing.) O’Toole told us that he works to find "early instances of variations of a quotation which are syntactically distinct but semantically similar" from databases of books, magazines and newspapers.

O’Toole traced the first appearance of one iteration of Ivanka Trump’s tweet back to 1902, when the quotation, "Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying ‘It can’t be done’ are always being interrupted by somebody doing it" appeared in the New York-based humor magazine Puck.

According to Quote Investigator, it was reprinted by newspapers for the next few decades. Then, a 1962 periodical about adult education included the expression, "Confucius say: Man who say it cannot be done, should not interrupt man doing it."

That’s pretty similar to Ivanka Trump’s tweet, but one expert noted that the template "Confucius say" is a format that is frequently used for jokes and witticisms.

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"Calling it a Chinese proverb is like a century ago when the fashion was to say ‘Confucius said…’ in front of a stupid remark or a weak joke," said Willard J. Peterson, professor of East Asian studies and history at Princeton University.

The quote showed up again in 1974, when advocates for solar energy sent a letter that was eventually published in a record of a U.S. Senate hearing. The letter also credited Confucius for the saying.

The quote was again ascribed to Confucius in different outlets in 1977 and 1996, suggesting that the belief that the saying is Chinese in origin may have stemmed from a misunderstood joke.

That’s where our trail ran cold. So we turned to experts.

Experts question origins of Ivanka Trump tweet

No expert we spoke to could confirm that it was a Chinese proverb.

"As far as I know, there is no way for this quote to be reasonably attributed to anyone in the Chinese intellectual tradition," said Isaac Stone Fish, a senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations. Stone Fish said the quote sounded like an American’s take on Chinese wisdom.

O’Toole wrote to us that "the precise phrasing of statements often evolves over time." In this case, he believes that the modern iteration of the statement that Ivanka Trump quoted "evolved from the 1902 statement" that was included in Puck.

As for why the misattribution of quotes to Chinese origin is commonplace, Paul R. Goldin, professor of East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, told us that his guess is that "people tend to say such-and-such is a Chinese proverb because (at least until recently) few Westerners were in any position to challenge such claims."

Goldin also said that "China isn't the only false source that is invoked for phony quotations and proverbs," noting that there’s also a tendency for speakers to misattribute "nonsense" to sources like Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain.

Meanwhile, Peterson told us that he thinks using the established words of others can be "a way of not taking responsibility for what you are saying," especially if those words are likely to offend the listener.  

This wasn’t the first time Trump has confused her Chinese proverbs. Quote Investigator considers the linkage of the saying "Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life" to Confucius to be "spurious." But she previously attributed the saying to the Chinese philosopher twice, once in 2013 and once in 2014.

Our ruling

Ivanka Trump tweeted, "Those who say it can not be done, should not interrupt those doing it" and attributed the quote to a "Chinese proverb."

We found no evidence that links her quote to a Chinese proverb. Similar versions of the quote have been circulating for over 100 years and have been attributed to Confucius, possibly as a joke. Experts also could not speak to the quote’s origins, but said it was unlikely of Chinese origin.

We rate this claim False.

Our Sources

Tweet from Ivanka Trump, 6:06 am, June 11, 2018

Email interview, Paul R. Goldin, Professor of East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania, June 13 and 19, 2018

Email interview, Willard J. Peterson, Professor of East Asian Studies and History at Princeton University, June 14 and 19, 2018

Email interview, Isaac Stone Fish, Senior Fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S.-China Relations, June 13, 2018

Email interview, David Mozina, Assistant Professor, Theology Department, Boston College, June 13, 2018

Email interview, Garson O’Toole, Founder of Quote Investigator, June 15, 2018

Quote Investigator, "People Who Say It Cannot Be Done Should Not Interrupt Those Who Are Doing It," January 26, 2015

ABC News, "Ivanka Trump's 'Chinese proverb' is 'definitely' not a Chinese proverb, experts say," June 13, 2018

Reuters, "Ivanka Trump’s ‘Chinese Proverb’ tweet mystifies China," June 12, 2018

New York Times, "Ivanka Trump Cited a ‘Chinese Proverb.’ China Is Confused.," June 12, 2018

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Ivanka Trump's Chinese proverb ahead of Singapore summit doesn't check out

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