Did someone say, ‘may you live in interesting times,’ and you’re wondering what it means?
Often misattributed as an ancient Chinese curse, ‘may you live in interesting times’ is an expression that is used ironically because it sounds like a well-wishing. In reality, it is communicating the idea that ‘interesting times’ are troubled times. If someone says ‘may you live in interesting times,’ they are essentially saying, ‘I hope you live in difficult times.’
‘May you live in interesting times’ is an English expression that is often misattributed to a traditional Chinese curse. While it might sound like a kind and generous blessing at first glance, the expression is almost always used ironically.
The idea here is that ‘interesting times’ are usually times of chaos and trouble, while ‘uninteresting times’ are generally stable and peaceful.
When someone says, ‘may you live in interesting times,’ they actually wish difficult times on you.
Though you’ll very commonly hear people reference this phrase as being a translation of a Chinese curse, no sources have ever been found that point to the expression being of Chinese origin or ancient origin.
In fact, there isn’t any expression that is known to be equivalent in Chinese. The closest Chinese expression translates to the following:
"Better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos."
As you can see, the meaning is somewhat related, but it hardly conveys precisely the same idea. This saying comes from a short story collection by Feng Menglong, called Stories to Awaken the World.
It isn’t entirely clear how the phrase became connected to Chinese culture. One theory is that it has to do with speeches by Joseph Chamberlain in the late 1800s; who was a British Statesman that lived from 1836 to 1914. It is thought that his son, Austen Chamberlain, incorrectly passed along and revised his speeches in a way that led to confusion about this expression's origin.
This theory was put forward by philologist Garson O’Toole. The statement that O’Toole points to as being the probable origin of this expression is as follows:
“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.)”
O’Toole’s idea is that the Chamberlain family might have, over time, begun to think that this phrase wasn’t an original utterance of Chamberlain, but instead a phrase he had borrowed from Chinese culture.
In a memoir written by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, a British Diplomat that acted as the Ambassador to China in 1936 and 1937, there is evidence that the expression was used as early as 1936.
In this publication, he says that he was told about a Chinese curse by a friend before he left England for China– “may you live in interesting times.”
Using the Google Books Ngram Viewer, we are able to chart the potential trajectory of the expression through publications since 1800. We find a number of instances throughout the 20th century where ‘may you live in interesting times’ is incorrectly described as a Chinese or Japanese curse.
For example, this statement is found in a Congressional Record from February 5, 1968:
“There is an old Japanese curse that says: “May you live in interesting times.” The reason for its use as a curse is because interesting times are times of revolution, drastic change and upheaval. By any measurement, we live in interesting times.”
An earlier publication from the United States Senate regarding the Committee on Unemployment Problems also references this expression as a curse of Asian origin:
“The Orientals had a subtle special curse: “May you live in interesting times.” We certainly live in challenging times. In every phase of modern life, inventions, developments, and improvements are so many and so varied that it is a challenge to adapt our operations and mode of living in order to keep pace with them.”
In a document named “Firm Base is Laid For World Economic Cooperation,” found in a publication entitled Treasury Papers from 1976, we find a similar sentiment:
“There is an old Chinese saying, eloquent in its simplicity, which merely states: “May you live in interesting times.” Without a doubt, we who are gathered here today have lived through some very interesting times together. The period since I joined the U.S. Treasure nearly four years ago has been one of extreme tension, even danger.”
In an address by Ernest Ambler in 1980, the Director of National Bureau of Standards, we find another instance of this quote being attributed to an ancient Chinese curse:
“I brought back from China not only vivid impressions of a vast nation and a very hospitable people, but of an ancient saying as well. That saying is– “May you live in interesting times.” I believe that all of us involved in measurement certainly do, and will continue to do so in this decade.”
The notion that ‘interesting times’ means chaotic or troubled times seems to date back, within English-speaking cultures, to before the phrase ‘may you live in interesting times’ emerged. In a letter sent in August of 1914, for example, we find the following:
“We live in interesting times, my friend, and you can take it from me that the Capitalistic System is about rotten enough to drop soon– and the tree will not have to be hard-shaken either.”
As another example of this usage of ‘interesting times,’ Robert Kennedy gave a speech where he said, “like it or not, we live in interesting times. They are times of danger and uncertainty, but they are also the most creative of any time in the history of mankind.”
Ultimately, we can’t know with certainty where this phrase originated. However, it does seem clear that with much thorough research, a direct connection to an ancient Chinese curse cannot be found.
How would you use 'may you live in interesting times' in a sentence? Let’s take a look at some examples.
‘May you live in interesting times’ is commonly described as an ancient Chinese curse, but this appears to be a misattribution. There is no evidence of such a curse existing in Chinese culture.
That being said, it’s still a fascinating phrase. Though it sounds like a blessing at first, it is used ironically to wish upon someone living during a troubled and chaotic period of human history.
It makes one realize that times that we might consider boring are actually times of peace, and the types of occurrences that make an era interesting are actually quite unpleasant and disruptive. For this reason, if you really want to bless someone, a more appropriate phrase would be ‘may you live in uninteresting times.’
Ready to learn more about English idioms and phrases? Make sure you head over to our idioms blog for more fascinating deep dives into common expressions!