Covid Variants? Insurrection Hearings? Tense Elections? Was “May You Live in Interesting Times” a Famous Chinese Curse?

There’s an old Buzzkill curse — may you subscribe to interesting podcasts. If you do, your life will become so gloriously enlightened with new information, presented in such an engaging way, that you’ll forget to feed your cat, you’ll mix your laundry colors, and you’ll neglect taking your medication

That reminds me of another “famous” curse from a source that’s famous for enlightenment and wisdom — ancient China. That wise culture is full of notable aphorisms and sayings. And the old Chinese “curse” — “may you live in interesting times,” is the subject of today’s Quote or No Quote. Lots of people are credited with bringing this wisdom and warning to the English speaking world: 19th British politicians and diplomats, writers such as Albert Camus and Arthur C. Clarke, and American politicians Robert F. Kennedy and even Hillary Clinton. 

You’ll sometimes hear it in slightly different constructions, 

May you live in exciting times.

May you live in an interesting age.

As a “curse” it means that interesting times are usually full of turmoil and difficulty, and it conveys the a somewhat disheartening reflection about human nature — that trouble and strife always seem more interesting to us than order and calm. There are certainly far more history books written about war and famine, than about peace and plenty.

Here’s the problem with the “Chinese curse” of living in interesting times. There’s no evidence or record of such a curse in Chinese culture, ancient or modern, and there’s certainly no literary evidence that it comes from China. Given that writing and philosophy have been so important in China for thousands of years, it’s highly unlikely that something as pithy and philosophical as “may you live in interesting times” would have been passed down completely through an oral tradition. 

The closest Chinese maxim seems to be one from Stories to Awaken the World, a collection of short stories written in 1627. Two of the stories express a basic idea similar to “may you live in interesting times.” Both relate the difficulties of living through the devastation of war, and they express, 

Truly, better to be a dog in days of peace

Than a human in times of war.

So how did we end up with the curse of living in interesting times? Well, all the evidence seems to suggest that it travelled through the British diplomatic and political corps from the 1830s to the 1930s. 

In “The Chinese: a General Description of the Empire of China and its Inhabitants,” (1836) British diplomat John Francis Davis wrote, “The Chinese have lived so much in peace, that they have acquired by habit and education a more than common horror of political disorder. ‘Better to be a dog in peace than a man in anarchy’ is a common maxim.’”

By the late 19th century, British politicians and chattering classes were using the phrase, “we live in interesting times.” And by the early 20th century, this basic idea had transformed into a Chinese “curse” or “warning,” and we were off to the misattribution races.

Speaking of interesting times, we history nerds are certainly living through ones now. Not because of what may be happening in world affairs (although that is certainly, um, interesting). But because of a great innovation in historical research. Scanning and digitizing of historical documents has allowed scholars and Buzzkill Institute Researchers to search through masses of material at a fraction of the time that it used to take. And I am very grateful for the work of Fred Shapiro at the Yale Book of Quotations, Garson O’Toole from the Quote Investigator, and Bonnie Taylor Blake for doing heavy digging on this “quote.”

I know a boring era might be easier on the old Buzzkill blood pressure, but aren’t you glad to be living in a time where you can hear my lovely tones tell you about history?

Buzzkill Bookshelf:

Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3 Shuhui Yang (Translator), Yunqin Yang (Translator) (2014).

This translation provides an unparalleled view of the art of traditional Chinese short fiction. As with the first two collections in the trilogy, Stories Old and New and Stories to Caution the World, the forty stories in this collection are eminently readable, accurate, and lively. They have included all of the poetry that is scattered throughout the stories, as well as Feng Menglong’s interlinear and marginal comments.

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