The end of special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s investigation, with the conclusion that President Trump and his campaign did not conspire with Russia to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election, has sparked numerous responses and recriminations. One of the most eloquent came from the Kremlin.
“Today is Culture Worker Day, and I would like to quote the words of a Chinese philosopher who said, ‘It is very hard to find a black cat in a dark room, especially if it is not there,' ” Russian presidential spokesman Dmitry Peskov said when asked about the conclusion of the Mueller investigation during a briefing with reporters.
“Centuries have passed, but unfortunately there has been no understanding of this on the other side of the ocean," Peskov added. The pithy response seemed to draw attention to what Russia viewed as the futility of the Mueller investigation.
However, the Chinese proverb that Peskov cited may not be as incisive as the Russian official thinks — especially as it may not be a Chinese proverb at all.
Peskov isn’t the first Russian official to use the black cat reference. Last year, Dmitry Polyanskiy, Russia’s representative to the United Nations, also referred to the proverb in a tweet. Polyanskiy was more specific in his reference, however, ascribing the quote specifically to Confucius, a famous Chinese philosopher who died in 479 B.C.
Notably, Polyanskiy wasn’t referring to the Mueller investigation when he made this remark, but instead to the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal and his daughter in 2018 and the long-standing international criticism of aggressive Russian moves against its neighbor Ukraine since 2014.
However, despite the references by Russian officials, there is little evidence that Confucius ever made this comment. “I don’t think Confucius ever said that,” Peimin Ni, a professor at Grand Valley State University and the author of “On Confucius,” said in an email. “This is not even close to the way that Confucius talks.”
Sam Crane, an expert on ancient Chinese philosophy at Williams College, also said he was not aware of any similar remarks attributed to Confucius. “It does not appear in any of the major early texts that have statements ascribed to Confucius,” Crane said.
The misattribution of proverbs and quotes appears to have spread since the implementation of the Internet. “Most online quotes from Confucius are made up,” Ni said. But the apparently false link between the ancient Chinese philosopher and the black cat quote may go back further.
In 2015, Garson O’Toole of the website Quote Investigator examined the history of references to the black cat proverb and found that it had variously been attributed to 19th-century English figures such as biologist Charles Darwin and the British judge Charles Bowen. However, O’Toole found a newspaper article from 1894 that contained an anecdote about Bowen describing an anecdote about a “black hat” in a dark room to Confucius.
“It always reminds me of the story that Confucius once called his followers together and asked them what was the greatest impossibility conceivable? None could answer. Then he said that it was when a blind man is searching in a dark room for a black hat which is not there,” the article read.
Although the meaning of the proverb has changed over the years, the basic core of it can be used to describe a futile task: looking for something, in difficult circumstances, that is not there.
However, although the special counsel investigation has not found evidence that the Trump campaign conspired with Russia to influence the 2016 election, it appears to be unequivocal that Russia did seek to influence that election. According to the letter Attorney General William P. Barr released Sunday announcing the findings of the investigation, Mueller “determined that there were two main Russian efforts to influence” the election.
Russia’s repeated use of the proverb to deflect accusations against it may suggest it intends to muddy the waters surrounding the allegations of bad conduct that follow it. In April 2014, Russian Defense Minister Sergei Shoigu said that no Russian troops were in Ukraine. “It is hard to search for a black cat in a dark room, particularly if it is not there," he said.
However, he added a twist to the proverb: "Especially if this cat is smart, brave and polite.” The same month, however, Russian President Vladimir Putin admitted that Russian forces were deployed to the annexed peninsula of Crimea; he later admitted that military advisers had been deployed to mainland eastern Ukraine as well.