A black cat in a dark room

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"The Chinese proverb that Russia cited to respond to the Mueller report does not appear to be a Chinese proverb", by Adam Taylor, Washington Post (3/25/19)

In a briefing with reporters, President Vladimir Putin's spokesman Dmitry Peskov quoted "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.' ”

Fake Oriental wisdom is the bane of Sinologists.  We spend a lot of time putting out false fires that flare up all over the place.

When the saying is attributed to a specific, known individual, it becomes a bit easier to squelch, since we can check it against his extant works to determine whether it actually exists among them.  When the quotation is also attributed to numerous other thinkers, that too makes it suspect as being urban lore.  In the present case, it is claimed that the "black cat in a dark room" quotation derives from Confucius (551-479 BC), but this kind of gnomic maxim is not the sort of philosophy dispensed by the First Sage.

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.

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.

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.

When it comes to sagely Chinese wisdom about black (and white) cats, the late Deng Xiaoping (1904-1997) paramount leader of the PRC really did utter these deathless words:  Bùguǎn hēi māo bái māo, zhuō dào lǎoshǔ jiùshì hǎo māo 不管黑猫白猫,捉到老鼠就是好猫 (“It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice it’s a good cat”).

Whether the "black cat in a dark room" proverb was by the First Sage or not, it doesn't matter.  What matters is that Russian spokesmen have found it a convenient tool for diverting attention from dark deeds.




  1. Paul said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 4:57 pm

    One is reminder of Ben Franklin’s advice to a young man. If you’re going to take a mistress, he suggested, better it be an older woman. And why not? “All cats in the dark are grey.”


  2. Rick said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 6:54 pm

    Which is even more appropriate to the post since the idea appears earlier in English in John Heywood's book of proverbs (1546) as 'When all candles bee out all cattes be gray.'

  3. AntC said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 7:44 pm

    "La nuit, tous les chats sont gris."

    Why have I heard that only in French if it dates to 1546 (or earlier) in English?

    (I've got a feeling the French is quoted by Hercule Poirot.)

  4. Carl said,

    March 25, 2019 @ 7:54 pm

    Arguably all quotes of Laozi/Laodan are misattributed. I am a fan of the theory that the early Daoists rescued Laodan from obscurity by just attaching their wisdom literature to his name, basically just because he was older than Confucius.

  5. Andreas Johansson said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 12:50 am

    I've heard variants of the black cat in a black room expression many times, but I don't recall hearing it asserted that it's originally Chinese before.

  6. Peter Taylor said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 2:14 am

    Is the indented section a quote from somewhere? If not, you might want to correct the typo of describing for ascribing.

  7. Frank said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 4:52 am

    Iberian forms:

    "de noche todos los gatos son pardos" (Spanish)
    "de noite todos os gatos são pardos" (European Portuguese)
    "à noite todos os gatos são pardos" (Brazilian Portuguese)

  8. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 4:55 am

    The indentation is to indicate that it is a quotation from the article cited at the beginning of the post.

    It's interesting that "ascribing" is used correctly earlier in the quotation.



    attribute (a text, quotation, or work of art) to a particular person or period.

    "a quotation ascribed to Thomas Cooper"


  9. Victor Mair said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 5:27 am


    I quite agree with you that the Tao Te Ching / Dao de jing consists of bits of wisdom literature that were circulating around the time it was compiled and ascribing them to a vague "Old Master". But I go one step further and say that there never was such a historical personage who lived before Confucius. See the front and back matter of my Tao Te Ching: The Classic Book of Integrity and the Way (New York: Bantam, 1990 — still very much in print). In that sense, "Lao Tzu / Lao Zi" may well have originally meant no more than "the Old Masters". I apply a similar analysis to the shadowy author of Sūnzi bīngfǎ 孫子兵法 (Master Sun's Tactics). See the Introduction and Appendix to my translation of The Art of War: Sun Zi's Military Methods (New York: Columbia University Press, 2007, 2009 — also still in print).

  10. Vilinthril said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 6:51 am

    The proverb also exists in German:

    In der Nacht sind alle Katzen grau.

  11. Robot Therapist said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 8:28 am

    See also "I can't believe it's not Buddha" website…

  12. Carl said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 9:04 am

    @Prof. Mair,

    I own your Wandering on the Way but not TTC. I'll have to add it to my wishlist.

  13. DaveK said,

    March 26, 2019 @ 1:51 pm

    Is Franklin’s version a bowdlerized pun?

  14. derek said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 9:14 am

    I think this is an overreaction. While Kennedy's famous "interesting times" quote might have been misleading, by now we all understand any reference to "old Chinese saying" or "Confucius say" is just a genre of joke, like the "Russian Reversal" format ("In Soviet Russia, party watches you!")

  15. liuyao said,

    March 27, 2019 @ 11:36 pm

    The name of Deng Xiaoping is missing.

    [VHM: fixed]

  16. Keith said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 3:35 am

    The French saying of "la nuit, tous les chats sont gris" is still quite commonplace, whereas I don't think I've ever heard or seen the English equivalent.

    My grandmother used to describe something that was more or less impossible or pointless as being "like trying to find a black cat in a coal cellar".

  17. ktschwarz said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 11:39 am

    On seeing hēi māo bái māo, I wondered if māo 'cat' was onomatopoetic. According to Wiktionary, yes it is! Do any other languages have onomatopoetic words for 'cat'?

  18. Michael Trittipo said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 2:07 pm

    I have seen claims elsewhere that what Deng Xiaoping really said at first was about _yellow_ cats and black ones. https://zh.wikipedia.org/wiki/%E7%8C%AB%E8%AE%BA offers the original as "黄猫、黑猫,只要能捉住老鼠就是好猫。" (Huáng māo, hēi māo, zhǐyào néng zhuō zhù lǎoshǔ jiùshì hǎo māo.) A translator blogging at https://gaodawei.wordpress.com/2017/07/07/what-deng-really-said-yellow-cats-black-cats-not-white-cats-black-cats/ apparently agrees in substance, but with some differences (adding an explicit "although" (不管) at the beginning, and omitting the 能): “不管黄猫黑猫,只要捉住老鼠就是好猫” (Bùguǎn huáng māo hēi māo, zhǐyào zhuō zhù lǎoshǔ jiùshì hǎo māo.)

    I have never checked nor even tried to find the original primary sources, however, so I cannot verify the claims independently. The most I can say is that I've seen the "yellow" version in a couple of academia.edu papers' footnotes — but those are secondary. :-(

  19. Philip Taylor said,

    March 28, 2019 @ 3:49 pm

    Keith (English equivalent). Used in English in a pejorative sense when explaining to a male friend why one is seeking sexual congress with a woman who would not necessarily score 10/10 on a beauty scale.

    KTSchwartz (Onomatopœic cats). Vietnamese, at the very least ("mèo"); I
    am sure there must be more.

  20. TIC said,

    March 29, 2019 @ 4:12 pm

    Re: an earlier comment/question about whether Ben Franklin’s timeless quip is “a bowdlerized pun”, I don’t know whether it’s in fact a cleaned-up paraphrasing of a one-synonym-more-bawdy earlier version… But I’ve always recognized and appreciated it as a doubly-clever, double-entendre pun … In a way, I liken it to some rhyming-slang-based Cockney substitutions (such as “china” for “mate”) where the missing connection (i.e., “plate”) has to be inferred by the hearer in order to fully understand and appreciate the inherent cleverness…

    Re: an earlier comment/question about onomatopoeic words for the (domesticated) ‘cat’ in other languages, I’m now prompted to search for something that I vaguely recall having run across not too long ago (perhaps on LL?) about onomatopoeic words in other languages for common animals’ signature sounds… I’m now wondering whether cats actually say “meow” (beginning with an m-sound) or whether they say just “eeeow” and we’ve pre-affixed the ‘m’ in emulating, and then in naming, the sound… And I’m pondering whether, if cats *do* in fact make that opening m-sound, it’s a feline variant of what Dr. Mair — in a follow-up comment (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42037#comment-1561533) to his ‘Hol don’ post a few weeks ago — referred to (in humans) as an “automatic onset / buildup” process… And I’m further pondering whether, if cats *don’t* in fact make that opening m-sound, our introduction of it might result from *our* “automatic onset / buildup” process… Plenty to ponder and explore…

    Somewhat in contrast, it seems to me, the cow’s signature utterance (or udderance?), the “moo”, does in fact open with a deep and resonant m-sound…

  21. Andrew Usher said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 9:40 am

    Since the phrase ('in the dark all cats are grey') was in use two centuries before Franklin, he can hardly be credited with the pun. The association of 'cat' with the female genitals probably was there, though.

    Now what language did it originate it, and was it always meant in the sexual sense?

    TIC, all languages seem to have gotten the opening 'm' sound in both 'meow' and 'moo', so there really it something being heard there. Surely not the same as a human /m/, but what animal vocalisations are? I assume (not thinking too hard) it is some sort of pre-voicing, the process that gives rise to prenasalised stops in some languages.

    k_over_hbarc at yahoo.com

  22. Oatrick said,

    March 30, 2019 @ 11:33 pm

    As i recall from Barbara Mertz: Red Land, Black Land, the reconstructed Egyptian root for cat is m-i-w. …

  23. TIC said,

    March 31, 2019 @ 6:01 am

    You’re right, of course, Andrew… I shouldn’t’ve implied that Franklin either coined the original (and, I assume, literal) observation/phrase or originated the punning, double-entendre connection with older women…

    And thanks for the notes on ‘meow’… It just so happens that I spent some time, and brought up this topic, with several cat-fanciers yesterday… They all agreed to listen more carefully to their cats in the future… But they were pretty much unanimous in saying that: their cats have (in addition to individualized personalities) a wide variety of (common and individualized) vocalizations; routine vocalizations among their cats include ones that sound nothing at all like ‘meow’ as well as ones that sound like ‘meeeow’, ‘eeeow’,’yeeeow’, ‘geeeow‘, etc., etc., etc. ad nauseum; and ‘meow’ is perhaps the most commonly shared and most frequently made vocalization among their cats…

    Finally, as a coincidental aside, I just responded to a recent comment of yours to an even older post (http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?p=42197#comment-1562061)…

  24. David Cowhig said,

    April 1, 2019 @ 2:05 pm

    Deng Xiaoping in his famous quote, borrowed from an old Sichuan saying, spoke of yellow cats and black cats, not black cats and white cats. Very few Chinese and Western sources get this detail right! After reading about it, I looked it up in Deng’s Selected Works (available online on the People’s Daily website). Yup, white cats are out of luck.

    Actually you can look up to check for yourself which color cat Deng was talking about! Deng, who was born in Guangyuan in Sichuan Province might learned that saying at home: it is an old Sichuan saying. Deng in a 1962 speech that can be found in the Selected Works of Deng Xiaoping 《怎样恢复农业生产》,《邓小平选集》第1卷) borrowed the saying “It doesn’t matter whether it is a yellow cat or a black cat, as long as it catches mice, it is a good cat.” “不管黄猫黑猫,只要捉住老鼠就是好猫” from famed PLA General Liu Bocheng. Liu was from near Chongqing, then part of Sichuan Province.

  25. ktschwarz said,

    April 2, 2019 @ 6:09 pm

    Thanks, Philip and Oatrick! Wiktionary points to similar 'cat' words in Thai (maeo) and related languages, as well as some Malaysian languages. Together with Chinese, Vietnamese, and Egyptian, that's five different major language families. Therefore I would guess this word spread by borrowing as cats were carried by trade and contact, especially on ships. Does it qualify as a Wanderwort?

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