Elon Musk is overprivileged and out of touch — phrase of the week

Society & Culture

Elon Musk used a mistranslated Confucian one-liner in an online spat with the former editor of the Global Times.

Illustration for The China Project by Derek Zheng

Our phrase of the week is: Overprivileged and out of touch (四体不勤,五谷不分 sìtǐ bùqín, wǔgǔ bùfēn).

Context

Elon Musk has clashed on Twitter with Hú Xījìn 胡锡进, the former editor of the nationalist tabloid the Global Times (环球时报 huánqiú shíbào).

Musk ran a controversial poll on the microblogging platform, asking what the peace terms of the Russia-Ukraine War might look like, and listing several options.

In response to the poll, Hu Xijin commented in English and Chinese:

Elon Musk has released his personality too much, and he believes too much in the U.S. and West’s “freedom of speech.” He will be taught a lesson!

马斯克过于放纵自己的个性,过于相信美国和西方的一些东西,他会被狠狠地上一课!

Mǎsīkè guòyú fàngzòng zìjǐ de gèxìng, guòyú xiāngxìn měiguó hé xīfāng de yìxiē dōngxi, tā huì bèi hěn hěn de shàng yí kè!

Musk hit back with a cryptic line of Chinese:

手整体插在口袋里的人过分自信。

Shǒu zhěngtǐ chā zài kǒudài lǐ de rén guòfèn zìxìn.

The English translation:

People with their hands in their pockets all day are too confident.

The post sparked some confusion, leading some people on Twitter and in Chinese media to debate what Musk actually meant.

Translation

The best guess is that Elon Musk was using Google Translate to evoke the following Chinese proverb:

Four limbs do nothing, cannot tell the difference between the five grains.

四体不勤,五谷不分。

Sìtǐ bùqín, wǔgǔ bùfēn.

This Chinese proverb (谚语 yànyǔ) is originally found in The Analects of Confucius (论语 lúnyǔ), an ancient collection of sayings and ideas attributed to the Chinese philosopher and his contemporaries, believed to have been compiled during the Warring States period (475–221 B.C.).

The phrase describes somebody who is lazy, overprivileged, and too out of touch to even know the difference between the five main grains: rice (稻 dào), two types of millet (黍 shǔ and 稷 jì), wheat (麦 mài), and beans (菽 shū).

One common English mistranslation of the proverb is:

A man who walks around with his hand in his pocket feels cocky all day.

So Elon Musk was implying that Hu spends all his time behind a desk, and therefore he is out of touch with what’s going on in the real world.

It’s a Google Translate version of the original mistranslated English translation of the phrase, or as one Twitter follower puts it:

Musk replied to Hu Xijin with a Chinese proverb invented by foreigners so that I could not understand what he meant. Who can help me translate Musk’s Chinese into real Chinese?

Andrew Methven