When hills are kept green, you will never run out of firewood

Zhang Ciyun
Did this common Chinese saying come from an ancient novel or from folklore?
Zhang Ciyun
When hills are kept green, you will never run out of firewood
Li Chaoquan

There are usually two versions about the origin of popular Chinese proverbs: one from historical writings; the other from legends or folklore.

Here’s an example in the form of the proverb liude qingshanzai, bupa meichaishao, or “so long as the hills remain green, one need not worry about firewood.”


liú dé qīng shān zài, bù pà méi chái shāo

Nearly all Chinese scholars insist that the proverb comes from the “First Series of Amazing Tales” by Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) novelist Ling Mengchu (1580-1644). The book contains 40 extremely appealing vernacular short stories.

But many people prefer a folk origin for the proverb.

According to legend, there was an old charcoal-burner who had two sons and lived on land with two hills. Before he passed away, he bequeathed the Red Hill to one son and the Green Hill to the other.

The younger son received the Red Hill. In the following three years, he wantonly cut the trees on the hill, and it soon became barren land. Then he planted crops on the hill, which were washed away in a thunderstorm.

In desperation, he went to his elder brother for help.

The elder brother had cut some trees on the Green Hill but had replaced them with saplings. So, after three years, his hill was still green, and the trees saved his crops from being washed away in the thunderstorm.

Later, people praised the elder brother by saying: “So long as the hill remain green, there will never be a shortage of firewood.”

Nowadays, the proverb is often cited when trying to persuade someone to accept some losses or make sacrifices in order to preserve their vital strength, so that they can later start over and eventually reach their goal.

To express the same view, English speakers may quote the saying: “While there’s life, there’s hope.”

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