Ivanka Trump Quotes ‘Chinese Proverb,’ but China Is Baffled

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BEIJING — It was supposed to be a triumphant tweet.

Ivanka Trump, the elder daughter of President Trump, celebrated her father’s landmark meeting with the leader of North Korea after decades of hostilities between the two countries by quoting what she called a Chinese proverb.

“Those who say it can not be done, should not interrupt those doing it,” Ms. Trump posted Monday on Twitter hours before Mr. Trump’s face-to-face meeting with Kim Jong-un in Singapore.

But Ms. Trump’s 91-character missive quickly became an object of ridicule by critics in the United States of Mr. Trump and his presidency. The saying, it turned out, was not Chinese. One website suggested it originated in the United States itself at the turn of the 20th century.

In China, as Ms. Trump’s tweet made the rounds, many people were baffled, with some calling it a “fake proverb.” But criticism was more muted, with many people appearing more interested in helpfully trying to guess which actual Chinese idiom she might have intended to use.

On popular social media sites like Weibo, tens of thousands of people discussed genuine Chinese sayings that might convey something similar to Ms. Trump’s post.

Some suggested classic idioms like “A true gentleman should keep silent while watching a chess game.” Others pointed to more informal phrases that are popular in China, such as “If you can do it, do it; if you can’t, shut up.”

Ms. Trump, as first daughter and a senior adviser to her father, has frequently emphasized her connection to China and Chinese culture. She hired a Chinese-speaking nanny to tutor her daughter, Arabella. She has cultivated a loyal following among young Chinese women, many of whom admire her success in starting a fashion brand and see her as a symbol of elegance.

It’s not the first time Ms. Trump has incorrectly described a quotation as Chinese. In 2013, for example, she posted on Twitter, “Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life,” attributing the phrase to Confucius. But experts said the saying was not Chinese.

Some experts said this sort of stereotyping was common among Americans, who often mistakenly attribute pithy sayings to Chinese sages, perhaps to give them an added aura of wisdom.

Larry Herzberg, a professor of Chinese at Calvin College in Michigan, said Ms. Trump’s tweet was “yet one more example of Americans ascribing a quote to the Chinese, often to Confucius, when they don’t really know the origin of the saying.”

“It sounds more legitimate and credible to pronounce a quote coming from the ancient civilization of China,” said Mr. Herzberg, who with his wife, Xue Qin, has written a book on Chinese proverbs.

The internet is awash in phrases that are misattributed, and it can be difficult to discern which phrases have a true connection to China’s 5,000-year-old culture. “To be fair, the Chinese language has hundreds and arguably thousands of times more proverbs and sayings than any other language,” Mr. Herzberg said.

The quote Ms. Trump invoked on Monday has also been attributed to non-Chinese sages like George Bernard Shaw, the Irish playwright.

The website QuoteInvestigator.com, run by Garson O’Toole, found in 2015 that it may have originated in the United States in the early 1900s as a way of commenting on the innovation of the era. According to the website, a Chicago periodical in 1903 published an article that read in part, “Things move along so rapidly nowadays that people saying: ‘It can’t be done,’ are always being interrupted by somebody doing it.”

In the United States, with its highly charged political atmosphere, Ms. Trump’s tweet drew more open mockery.

William Kristol, the conservative pundit, joked that the White House, in the midst of a heated trade dispute with China, had given away a valuable American invention.

“Why are Trump WH aides giving our proverbs to China, increasing our proverb deficit?” Mr. Kristol wrote on Twitter.

Iris Zhao contributed research.

Follow Javier C. Hernández on Twitter: @HernandezJavier.

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