May you live in interesting times

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"Chinese curse" redirects here. For Chinese-language profanity, see Mandarin Chinese profanity.

"May you live in interesting times" is an English expression purported 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.


Despite being widely attributed as a Chinese curse, there is no equivalent expression in Chinese.[1] 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 man in a chaotic (warring) period."[2] The expression originates from Volume 3 of the 1627 short story collection by Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World.[3]

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".[4]

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.[5]

The phrase is again described as a "Chinese curse" in an article published in Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education in 1943.[6]

Popularization and usage[edit]


  1. ^ 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.[dead link]
  2. ^ The Grammarphobia Blog: May you live in interesting times
  3. ^ Feng Menglong (1627). Stories to Awaken the World (醒世恆言) (in Written vernacular Chinese) 3. Retrieved 2015-09-06. 
  4. ^ Knatchbull-Hugessen, Hughe: Diplomat in Peace and War, John Murray 1949 p. ix
  5. ^ Frederic R. Coudert Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Columbia University 1940, p. 269
  6. ^ Child Study: A Journal of Parent Education, Volume 21, p. 52
  7. ^ "Robert F. Kennedy's Day of Affirmation Address, Cape Town, South Africa". Retrieved 2008-08-03. 
  8. ^ George Packer. "Interesting Times". The New Yorker. Retrieved 2008-08-03. 

External links[edit]