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May you live in interesting times

"May you live in interesting times" is an English expression purported to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. While seemingly a blessing, the expression is normally used ironically, with the clear implication that "uninteresting times" of peace and tranquillity are more life-enhancing than interesting ones, which, from a historical perspective, usually include disorder and conflict.

Despite being so common in English as to be known as the "Chinese curse", the saying is apocryphal, and no actual Chinese source has ever been produced. The most likely connection to Chinese culture may be deduced from analysis of the late-19th-century speeches of Joseph Chamberlain, probably erroneously transmitted and revised through his son Austen Chamberlain.[1]



Despite being widely attributed as a Chinese curse, there is no known equivalent expression in Chinese.[2] The nearest related Chinese expression is "太平" (nìng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuò luàn lí rén), which is usually translated as "Better to be a dog in a peaceful time, than to be a human in a chaotic (warring) period."[3] The expression originates from Volume 3 of the 1627 short story collection by Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World.[4]

The basic premise of the curse may also be found in a quote by the German philosopher Hegel:

World history is not the ground of happiness. The periods of happiness are empty pages in her.[5]

— Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel

Evidence that the phrase was in use as early as 1936 is provided in a memoir written by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, the British Ambassador to China in 1936 and 1937, and published in 1949. He mentions that before he left England for China in 1936, a friend told him of a Chinese curse, "May you live in interesting times."[6]

Frederic René Coudert, Jr. also recounts having heard the phrase at the time:

Some years ago, in 1936, I had to write to a very dear and honoured friend of mine, who has since died, Sir Austen Chamberlain, brother of the present Prime Minister, and I concluded my letter with a rather banal remark "that we were living in an interesting age". Evidently he read the whole letter, because by return mail he wrote to me and concluded as follows: "Many years ago I learned from one of our diplomats in China that one of the principal Chinese curses heaped upon an enemy is, 'May you live in an interesting age.'" "Surely", he said, "no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time." That was three years ago.[7]

"Chamberlain Curse"?Edit

Research by philologist Garson O'Toole shows a probable origin in the mind of Austen Chamberlain's father Joseph Chamberlain dating around the late-19th and early 20th centuries. Specifically, O'Toole cites the following statement Joseph made during a speech in 1898:

I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. (Hear, hear.) I never remember myself a time in which our history was so full, in which day by day brought us new objects of interest, and, let me say also, new objects for anxiety. (Hear, hear.) [emphasis added][8]

From this it is likely that the Chamberlain family may have inadvertently transmitted a folk etymology by expanding Joseph Chamberlain's use of the concept to refer to some Chinese curse.

The phrase is again described as a "Chinese curse" in an article published in Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education in 1943.[9]

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ O'Toole, Garson. "May You Live in Interesting Times". Quote Investigator: Exploring the Origins of Quotations. Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  2. ^ Bryan W. Van Norden. Introduction to Classical ChinesePhilosophy. (Indianapolis: Hackett, 2011; ISBN 9781603844697), p. 53, sourcing Fred R. Shapiro, ed., The Yale Book of Quotations (New Haven: Yale University Press 2006), p. 669. Archived October 6, 2014, at the Wayback Machine.
  3. ^ May you live in interesting times, The Grammarphobia Blog
  4. ^ Feng Menglong (1627). Stories to Awaken the World (醒世恆言) (in Chinese). 3. |access-date= requires |url= (help)
  5. ^ St John, Michael (2016-12-05). Romancing Decay: Ideas of Decadence in European Culture. Routledge. ISBN 9781351902564.
  6. ^ Knatchbull-Hugessen, Hughe (1949). Diplomat in Peace and War. John Murray. p. ix.
  7. ^ Coudert, Frederic R. (1940). Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science. Columbia University Press. p. 269.
  8. ^ O'Toole, Garson. "May You Live in Interesting Times". Quote Investigator: Exploring the Origins of Quotations. Retrieved 27 May 2016.
  9. ^ Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education. 21. p. 52.

External linksEdit