May you live in interesting times
“May you live in interesting times" is an English expression purporting to be a translation of a traditional Chinese curse. 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 nearest related Chinese expression is "宁为太平犬，莫作乱离人" (níng wéi tàipíng quǎn, mò zuòluàn lí rén) which conveys the sense that it is "better to live as a dog in an era of peace than a man in times of trouble."
Evidence that the phrase was in use as early as 1936 is provided by a memoir written by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen who was the British ambassador to China in 1936 and 1937. The memoir describes an instance of a friend of Knatchbull-Hugessen describing the phrase as a "Chinese curse" when discussing his departure to China.
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 honored 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.
The phrase is again described as a “Chinese curse” in 1943's “Child Study Association of America, Federation for Child Study (U.S.).”
Popularization and usage
- The saying was used by Robert F. Kennedy in his Day of Affirmation Address in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966.
- It is also a saying from the counterweight continent in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series, and a novel in the series centered in the "Aurient" (Orient) is named Interesting Times.
- "Interesting Times" is the title of the autobiography of the historian Eric Hobsbawm.
- Writer George Packer calls his New Yorker blog "Interesting Times".
- Harry Kim uses the phrase in Episode 6 "The Cloud" of Star Trek: Voyager Season 1.
- Neal Caffrey and Mozzie discuss the curse in Episode 14 "Out of the Box" of White Collar Season 1.
- Corrado "Junior" Soprano references the curse when lamenting recent persecution of the Mafia to Richie Aprile in The Sopranos Season 2 episode "Toodle-F*ing-Oo".
- The character John "Sexy Johnny" Ibrahim played by Firass Dirani uses it on his release on bail in episode 8 of Underbelly: The Golden Mile
- Bob Garvin uses the phrase near the end of the movie in Disclosure.
- Stephen King also referenced the curse in his novel Firestarter. In this novel, the head of the 'Shop' (the secret government agency who are chasing the protagonist and his daughter, who each have supernatural powers) thinks about this curse, and thinks to himself that if any more interesting thing happen again, it will drive him mad.
- Bryan W. Van Norden. Introduction to Classical Chinese Philosophy. (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.
- Knatchbull-Hugessen, Hughe (1949). Diplomat in Peace and War. J. Murray.
- Frederic R. Coudert Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 1939
- Retrieved from Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education, Volume 21, p52.
- "Robert F. Kennedy's Day of Affirmation Address, Cape Town, South Africa". Retrieved 2008-08-03.
- George Packer. "Interesting Times". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2008-08-03.
- "IMDB - Disclosure (1994) - Quotes".
- Stephen E. DeLong (May 5, 1998). "Get a(n interesting) life!". Archived from the original on 2004-04-04. Retrieved 2008-08-03.
- "Origin of Phrase: May You Live In Interesting Times". Archived from the original on 2007-10-16. Retrieved 2008-08-03.