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There is a proverb that goes like this:

The best time to plant a tree is 20 years ago. The second best time is now.

The idea being that it doesn't matter that it would have been better if you did something a long time ago because you would then reap the benefits now. You can still start doing that thing now.

In short: better late than never.

It's on several places on the internet and almost always stated as being an old Chinese proverb. However, that seems unsubstantiated and everyone just seems to quote is as such.

I wonder if anyone here can confirm that this really is an old Chinese proverb or that it isn't and is just stated as such because everyone else on the internet says it is.

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    I am not aware of such a "Chinese" provide. But it seems it actually comes from a passage from the book "Dead Aid" by Dambisa Moyo -zhidao.baidu.com/question/652202353537726525.html Whether she was quoting a Chinese proverb is not clear. Dec 12, 2022 at 8:52
  • U.s. has South Park with a sode about hind site with captain hind site haha, I think time travel to the past is impossible but g.r. Does admit closed looped solutions, Anyways Dec 12, 2022 at 18:18
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    Just wanted to say that chinese does have phrases of the equivalent sentiment, such as 十月都係拜年時 (give new years greetings in october) or 十月都係拜山時 (visit graves in october) bother events usually done much earlier in the year. These are both cantonese examples. Ironically the first tree saying I can think of is the opposite sentiment 留得青山在,不怕沒柴燒 (as long as you still have trees on your hill, you don't worry about wood to burn aka maintain the important things and the rest is doable later.)
    – zagrycha
    Dec 19, 2022 at 19:11
  • The best time to attribute this quote is 20 years ago...
    – Daniel
    Feb 5 at 17:19
  • 啊?这句话原文我真的听都没听说过
    – mcendu
    Feb 6 at 2:10

3 Answers 3

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It is almost certainly not a Chinese proverb as it follows a common linguistic template that has been seen to evolve over the last century or so and only more recently claimed as Chinese in origin. The earliest reference I can find that uses the exact formulation is from an article in The Cleveland Plain Dealer on March 19, 1967 “Negro Help for Negroes Under Way”, Page 9A

But the template goes back farther - The St. Louis Post Dispatch used the phrase "The best time for transplanting trees is in the fall. The next best time is now." in April 2, 1902. The Centre Democrat from Bellefonte, PA used "Spring is the best time for setting strawberry plants. The next best time is now." on 18 August, 1881. These all seem to be referencing the same or similar idea, using the same structure.

The earliest that I have found the phrase attributed as a Chinese proverb was in 1985 when former Nebraska state Sen. Maurice Kremer was said to be fond of repeating an allegedly Chinese proverb: "When is the best time to plant a tree? Twenty years ago. The second-best time is today." Others who have searched claim not to find an earlier reference attributing this phrase to a Chinese proverb.

After that, it more regularly came to be referred to as a Chinese proverb - but with it only being described that way nearly 20 years after it earliest appeared in print, and before that there were other variations on the theme in common use, it seems more like a folksy aphorism from rural America than a Chinese or African proverb.

We might note, though, that if coming from rural America, it's not implausible that it originated as an African proverb which source was subsequently forgotten. I've found no clear evidence of that, however.

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    Obviously would be hard to pin down but a generally honest Midwesterner ascribing something like this to "an old Chinese proverb" almost certainly means "I got this on a fortune cookie once". Then again the guy was apparently a politician...
    – lly
    Dec 17, 2022 at 15:47
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It is not a Chinese proverb but seems to be inspired by or coincidentally similar to a common Chinese proverb 亡羊补牢,为时未晚 (it is not too late to mend the fence after some sheep were lost)

The logic is the same, "you should have mended the fence before the sheep escaped, but it is not too late to do it now so that no more sheep would be lost"

Proverbs were based on human wisdom through experience. Different cultures came up with proverbs independently that taught the same wisdom is no surprise at all

I seriously doubt that the so call "proverb" you posted is commonly known in the English language at all. As a Chinese, I certainly have never heard of it

Check this: Anyone heard a saying about marriage being like cooking rice?

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    I've never heard it either in Taiwan or the US.
    – r13
    Dec 12, 2022 at 17:27
  • Indeed hindsite is 20/20. The great proverb you have sited should have a complicated antidote preceding it, which abstracts to the proverb, there by showing wisdom. Ah the joys of university indoctrination. Strait street yo I got my mba. Dec 12, 2022 at 18:24
  • I've heard this proverb multiple times in online USA-centric gardening communities. The version I've heard is, "The best time to plant a tree is yesterday, the second best time is today." Google examples
    – Jamin Grey
    Dec 12, 2022 at 19:29
  • "I seriously doubt that the so call "proverb" you posted is commonly known in the English language at all. As a Chinese, I certainly have never heard of it". Do you mean that you as a Chinese person have never heard of it and thus doubt that it exists in English? I'm confused by that argument.
    – awe lotta
    Dec 26, 2022 at 23:13
  • As a person living in an English-speaking country, I've never heard of it. As a person who speaks native Chinese, I've never heard of a proverb with similar context
    – Tang Ho
    Dec 27, 2022 at 0:58
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No, it it not a Chinese proverb. The actual origin is not very clear, as pointed out by other answers.


It is allegedly an African proverb, as affirmed in page 143 in Dead Aid (1st ed.) by Dambisa Moyo:

The best time to plant a tree is twenty years ago.
The second-best time is now.
African proverb

Incidentally it is, however, perfectly famous among and frequently quoted by high school students in China to flavor their examination compositions. That cohort, in comparison to the people in the Quora link you provided, seem to be more aware of the origin of this epigram, though partly incorrectly attributed, by the editors of anthologies of materials for student writing, to Dambisa Moyo herself.

I wouldn't have known that if I hadn't been one of those students quoting it. I wouldn't know that it is more often misattributed in the West than it is in China either, were it not for this post.

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    Quote:- "I wouldn't know that it is more often misattributed in the West than it is in China either...." Yes, one of those "Confucius says" kind of thing I suppose. But it does have a certain "Chinese" flavor to it, and added the popular habit of cultural stereotyping where anything emanating, or purported to emanate, from an ancient civilization like China carries more quotable weightage. Dec 12, 2022 at 12:03
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    It certainly existed before Dead Aid (google results are easy to find) and the citation here is very weak. "Africa" is a big place, is this Xhosa? Igbo? or Tunisian?, or is one of the several thousand other cultures of the continent of Africa. I'd say this is as weak a source as the others saying "Chinese".
    – James K
    Dec 12, 2022 at 18:41

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