More phony Chinese wisdom

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I've never heard of this "Chinese" proverb, but some American friends are asking if I can tell them the original proverb in Chinese.  I can't tell them the original proverb in Chinese, but I can tell them about its origins in Japanese.

Richard Warmington states:

One writer on the Web goes so far as to call it a "beloved Chinese Proverb"!

A bit of googling suggests to me that the proverb may have originated in a poem by Yosano Akiko.


Yosano Akiko (Shinjitai: 与謝野 晶子, seiji: 與謝野 晶子; 7 December 1878 – 29 May 1942) was the pen-name of a Japanese author, poet, pioneering feminist, pacifist, and social reformer, active in the late Meiji era as well as the Taishō and early Shōwa eras of Japan. […] The first issue of the literary journal Seito in September 1911 featured her poem "The Day the Mountains Move" asking for woman to be given equal rights.

Here is one English translation of her poem:

The day the mountains move has come.
Or so I say, though no one will believe me.
The mountains were merely asleep for a while.
But in ages past, they had moved, as if they were on fire.
If you don't believe me, that's fine with me.
All I ask is that you believe this and only this,
That at this very moment, women are awakening from their deep slumber.


かく云い へども人われを信ぜじ

In 1989, the Japanese politician, Takako Doi, famously commented on her party's success in the elections by alluding to Yosano's poem, saying 「山が動いた」 ("The mountain has moved.")



DeepL translation:

In the 15th Upper House election in 1989, the Socialist Party built on the Socialist Party-Communist line, which had been strengthened during the pursuit of the consumption tax and recruiting cases, and established an electoral cooperation system in which the three parties endorsed candidates for the Rengo no Kai. As a result, the Socialist Party won more than double the number of seats up for election, resulting in the Socialist Party being the first party in terms of the number of seats up for election and the LDP being the comparative first party in terms of total seats with less than a majority. This was largely due to Doi's personal popularity, and was described as a "Doi boom (Otakasan boom)" (it was also called a "Madonna boom (whirlwind)" from the point of view of the conspicuous number of new female Diet members elected). Doi's "The mountain has moved" became a famous phrase (based on Akiko Yosano's poem "Sozorogoto" (「そぞろごと」 or "Rambling Thoughts"), the first part of which is "The day the mountain moves has arrived").   (with a slight correction and amplification of the DeepL translation near the end)

Rich added:

What I quoted of the poem was only the beginning of it. It looks like Wikisource has a complete version here:

『そぞろごと』- 作者:与謝野晶子 – 1911年


When I asked ChatGPT about the origin of the proverb, it gave the following response, which seems reasonable enough. It was "wise" enough not to be overly swayed by the fact that the proverb is widely asserted to be Chinese.

The origin of the saying "when sleeping women wake, mountains will move" is unclear and there are various interpretations and theories about its origin. However, it is often used to express the idea that when women become politically and socially active and conscious of their rights, they have the power to bring about significant change and make a significant impact on society.

Google Books and Internet Archive have a 1994 book that quotes the proverb. The book is Keys to the Open Gate: A Woman's Spirituality Sourcebook by Kimberley Snow. The proverb is printed in the margin on p. 142. It's the earliest usage of the proverb that I can find in English, and the proverb is claimed by Snow to be of Chinese origin. (See screenshot below.)

There is an intriguing passage in another book I found at Google Books and Internet Archive, and this one is from 1978:

There is a new sound
of roaring voices in the deep
and light-shattered rushes in the heavens.
The mountains are coming alive,
the fire-kindled mountains moving again to reshape the earth.
It is we sleeping women,
waking up in a darkened world,
cutting the chains from off our bodies with our teeth,
stretching our lives over the slow earth,
seeing, moving, breathing in vigor
that commands us to make all things new.

It's from a poem written by Alla Bozarth-Campbell in her book Womanpriest – A Personal Odyssey.

Selected readings

[Thanks to Jing Hu and Ben Zimmer]


  1. HenHanna said,

    February 20, 2023 @ 3:14 am

    One Web page says it's an African proverb.

    Another Web page says (re: Gary Snyder) [The blue mountains are constantly walking.] Dogen is quoting the Chan master Furong.

    —— Is Furong Chinese? — maybe it's (originally, partially) Chinese after all !


  2. Richard Warmington said,

    February 24, 2023 @ 4:33 pm

    Furong was a Chinese Zen Buddhist who lived about 1,000 years ago. The fact that Furong mentioned mountains moving is rather weak evidence for the proposition that he influenced either Yosano or the person who first formulated the proverb in English. Firstly, Furong didn't mention any connection between mountains moving and women waking. Secondly, Furong was not the only person who imagined mountains moving. There is the Chinese saying 愚公移山 (similar to "where there's a will, there's a way"), which is based on an ancient tale of a man who set out to move a mountain. Another example is Francis Bacon's story, published in his "Essays" (1625) that begins with the line "Mahomet made the people believe that he would call a hill to him," which is the origin of the saying "If the mountain will not come to Mohammed …"

    As for the proposal that the proverb might be African in origin, is there any evidence for that other than "someone on the Web said so"?

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