May You Live In Interesting Times

Chinese Curse? Austen Chamberlain? Frederic R. Coudert? Joseph Chamberlain? Diplomatic Staff? Albert Camus? Arthur C. Clarke? Robert F. Kennedy? Hillary Rodham Clinton?

pale09Dear Quote Investigator: The most fascinating periods in history were filled with tumult and upheaval. Tales of treachery, wars, and chaos provide compelling reading, but the participants who were living through the momentous changes were probably experiencing trepidation, hunger, and pain. Here are three versions of a saying that has commonly been described as a Chinese curse:

May you live in interesting times.
May you live in an interesting age.
May you live in exciting times.

I asked a Chinese friend about this expression, and she said that she had never heard it before. Would you please explore its provenance?

Quote Investigator: Fred R. Shapiro who is the editor of “The Yale Book of Quotations” has noted that: “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found”. 1 In addition, Ralph Keyes stated in “The Quote Verifier” that nobody has ever been able to confirm the Chinese origin claim. 2

The earliest strong match known to QI appeared in a March 1936 newspaper report in “The Yorkshire Post” of West Yorkshire, England. The expression was used in a speech by an influential British statesman. Boldface has been added to excerpts: 3

Sir Austen Chamberlain, addressing the annual meeting of Birmingham Unionist Association last night, spoke of the “grave injury” to collective security by Germany’s violation of the Treaty of Locarno.

Sir Austen, who referred to himself as “a very old Parliamentarian,” said:—

“It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on us.”

“We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and shock after another.”

Many thanks to top researcher Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located and shared the above citation with QI.

Other citations presented below also pointed to British diplomatic personnel who had spent time in China as the primary locus for dissemination. Intriguingly, the saying seems to be closely connected to the Chamberlain family.

Perhaps this notion of a curse originated with some form of miscommunication. A Chinese adage contrasting times of peace and war displayed thematic similarities to the saying under examination as shown below. However, this distinct adage featured a dog and was not formulated as a curse.

Here are additional selected citations in chronological order.

A collection of short stories in vernacular Chinese was compiled and published in Suzhou, China in 1627. Two of the tales contained a maxim that expressed a somber preference for times of peace and stability versus war and turbulence. In the story “The Oil-Peddler Wins the Queen of Flowers” the main characters were driven from their home by warfare: 4

Thirsty, hungry, they bore all manner of hardships;
Where would they have a home to call their own again?
They prayed to heaven, earth, and their ancestors,
Not to let them run into the Jurchens.
Truly, better be a dog in days of peace
Than a human in times of war!

The tale “Bai Yuniang Endures Hardships and Brings about Her Husband’s Success” also included commentary on the devastation of war: 5

His heart ached as he witnessed how the Yuan troops wreaked havoc in the land every day, like gusts of wind blowing dead leaves before them. Truly,

Far better to be a dog in days of peace
Than to be a human in times of war.

In 1836 a British diplomat named John Francis Davis published “The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants”, and he referred to the adage given above which continued to circulate in China: 6

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 be a dog in peace than a man in anarchy,” is a common maxim. “It is a general rule,” they say, “that the worst of men are fondest of change and commotion, hoping that they may thereby benefit themselves; but by adherence to a steady, quiet system, affairs proceed without confusion, and bad men have nothing to gain.”

The British statesman Joseph Chamberlain was the father of future Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain and future diplomat Austen Chamberlain. As noted previously, Austen asserted in a 1936 speech that “living in interesting times” was considered to be a curse in Chinese culture. Curiously, Joseph used the same distinctive phrase during addresses he delivered in 1898 and 1901. Joseph’s speeches assigned a complex meaning to “live in interesting times” with connotations of opportunity, excitement, anxiety, and danger. The speech in 1898 was reported in “The Western Daily Press” of Bristol, England: 7

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.)

In 1901 Joseph’s address to a meeting of the Liberal Unionist Association was reported in ‘The Daily News” of London: 8

I propose the health of the Duke of Devonshire—(renewed cheers)—our chairman to-night, our president always—(hear, hear)—the captain who has commanded the Liberal Unionist barque and carried it safely through many stormy seas. (Cheers.) We live in interesting times, but I doubt very much whether there were ever any weeks more critical in the history of the last century than the weeks which accompanied the introduction and defeat of the Home Rule Bill. (Cheers.)

Joseph Chamberlain did not say anything about a curse. The citations above were presented as evidence for a speculative conjecture. QI hypothesizes that the phrase “live in interesting times” was repeated and transmitted from father to son. Next, Austen used the expression while conversing with a British member of the Chinese diplomatic service. Austen’s informant was perhaps aware of echoes of the attitudes described in the 1836 citation. From their conversation the notion of a curse emerged. Recall that Austen said the following during a 1936 speech:

It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London, who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, ‘May you live in interesting times.’

Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen served as the British Ambassador to China and later wrote a memoir titled “Diplomat in Peace and War”. In the book he recalled a conversation from 1936: 9

Before I left England for China in 1936 a friend told me that there exists a Chinese curse“May you live in interesting times”. If so, our generation has certainly witnessed that curse’s fulfilment.

In April 1939 a banquet was held at the annual meeting of the American Society of International Law. The toastmaster was Frederic R. Coudert who was the Honorary Vice President of the Society, and he spoke about letters he had exchanged with Austen Chamberlain in 1936: 10

This is at present an interesting world that we live in. That is a very banal remark. I ended a letter some years ago, in ’36, with that trite remark, in writing to a dear friend, a statesman and a scholar in England, Sir Austen Chamberlain.

He evidently read my letter through, because he said, “You make a remark about the present world. I can only say that one of our diplomats who had long been in the Eastern Service told me that an old Chinese curse to their enemies was, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ Certainly,” he said, “we are living in an interesting time, for never have I known a time when we had less security.”

In May 1939 Frederic R. Coudert retold his tale about Austen Chamberlain with two significant changes. The wording of the curse was changed from “interesting times” to “an interesting age”. The phrase “many years ago” was ascribed to Austen, and this shifted the chronology: 11

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.”

In the 1936 citation Austen stated that he heard about the curse “not so long ago”. However, in the passage above Coudert suggested that Austen heard about the curse “many years ago”. The best way to resolve this disagreement was unclear, but the words in 1936 were more direct.

In 1944 D. W. Brogan who was a member of the London School of Economics published a piece in “The Saturday Review of Literature” about the American military. The following passage also appeared in Brogan’s book “The American Character”: 12 13

It is, I have been told, one of the most formidable of Chinese imprecations to wish that your enemy lived “in interesting times.” We live in very interesting times; times not to be made better by any simple formula. Understanding each other is not enough, but it is an indispensable beginning.

In January 1951 “The Atlantic Monthly” published an article by a pseudonymous French poet Pierre Emmanuel who presented a variant of the curse: 14

The values that we pretend to defend, and that it would be better to illustrate, are all values founded on risk; but are they still alive, or can they be brought back to life?

An old Chinese curse runs something like this: May your children live in a historic epoch! We are all struck by this malediction.

The variant with “interesting age” continued to circulate in 1955 when Dr. Barnett Stross employed an instance while speaking in the U.K. House of Commons: 15

As he spoke, I thought of the phrase that the Chinese sometimes use when they dislike one. They say “I hope you may live in an interesting age.”

In our lifetime we have certainly been living in a most interesting age. There is a good deal of evidence that, despite the fact that we have survived it so far, the times are still troublesome.

In 1957 the major French literary figure Albert Camus connected the saying to an unnamed Asian sage during a speech he delivered at Uppsala University: 16

Un sage oriental demandait toujours, dans ses prières, que la divinité voulût bien lui épargner de vivre une époque intéressante.

The translated words of Camus are presented below embedded in a longer passage to provide additional context: 17

An oriental wise man always used to ask the divinity in his prayers to be so kind as to spare him from living in an interesting era. As we are not wise, the divinity has not spared us and we are living in an interesting era. In any case, our era forces us to take an interest in it. The writers of today know this. If they speak up, they are criticized and attacked. If they become modest and keep silent, they are vociferously blamed for their silence.

The well-known science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke used an instance in an essay he published in 1965: 18

As the old Chinese curse has it: “May you live in interesting times,” and the twentieth century is probably the most “interesting” period mankind has ever known.

In 1966 Robert F. Kennedy delivered a speech that included an instance: 19

There is a Chinese curse which says “May he live in interesting times.” 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.

In 1969 a newspaper columnist in San Diego, California reviewed the ferment of the 1960s and employed a variant with the phrase “exciting times”: 20

“May you live in exciting times,” goes the ancient Chinese curse. And we did in those 10 years.

In 1987 a book about school reform presented another version of the saying: 21

The ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in a time of change,” summarizes both the expectation that change takes time and that there is inherent stress for persons involved in it.

In 1995 “Time” magazine suggested that the proper version used the phrase “exciting times”: 22

A reminder of the old, often misquoted Chinese curse: May you live in exciting times.

In 2003 former first lady and current presidential aspirant Hillary Rodham Clinton released an autobiography that included an instance of the expression: 23

There’s an old Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” that became a running joke in our family. Bill and I would ask each other, “Well, are you having an interesting time yet?”

In conclusion, there is no substantive evidence that the saying was an ancient or modern Chinese curse. The expression was traceable to the British diplomatic service in China circa 1936. Austen Chamberlain who was the earliest known person to label the saying a Chinese curse was pivotal to its initial dissemination. But he credited an unnamed member of the British Foreign Service who had served in China. This article presents only a snapshot of current knowledge, and future researchers may discover more.

Image Notes: Painting “Death on a Pale Horse” circa 1796 by Benjamin West Currently located at the Detroit Institute of Arts; Accessed via Wikimedia Commons.

(Great thanks to the numerous researchers who have explored this topic especially Fred R. Shapiro whose reference identified the important April 1939 citation. Special thanks to Bonnie Taylor-Blake who located the earliest citation in 1936, and who obtained page scans from the 1949 memoir. Thanks to Benjamin Barrett who pointed to the Chinese maxim in 1627. Many thanks to René-Daniel Dubois who told QI about the 1957 Camus quotation and verified the citation with scans. Also, thanks also to the volunteer Wikipedia editors. Many thanks to David Rothman, the founder of TeleRead, who constructively encouraged QI many years ago.)

Update History: On December 20, 2015 the 2014 citation containing Chinese stories from 1627 was added to the article. On January 5, 2016 the 1966 Robert F. Kennedy citation was added. On February 4, 2017 the two citations for Albert Camus were added.

Notes:

  1. 2006, The Yale Book of Quotations by Fred R. Shapiro, Section: Sayings, Quote Page 669, Yale University Press, New Haven. (Verified on paper)
  2. 2006, The Quote Verifier by Ralph Keyes, Quote Page 99 and 100, St Martin’s Griffin, New York. (Verified on paper)
  3. 1936 March 21, The Yorkshire Post, Lesson of the Crisis: Sir A. Chamberlain’s Review of Events, Quote Page 11, Column 7, Leeds, West Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  4. 2014 (Copyright 2009), Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3, Compiled by Feng Menglong, Translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang, (Foreword asserts that this collection of short stories in vernacular Chinese was compiled by Feng Menglong and was published in Suzhou, China in 1627), Story 3: The Oil-Peddler Wins the Queen of Flowers, Start Page 38, Quote Page 40, University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington. (Google Books Preview)
  5. 2014 (Copyright 2009), Stories to Awaken the World: A Ming Dynasty Collection, Volume 3, Compiled by Feng Menglong, Translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang, (Foreword asserts that this collection of short stories in vernacular Chinese was compiled by Feng Menglong and was published in Suzhou, China in 1627), Story 19: Bai Yuniang Endures Hardships and Brings about Her Husband’s Success, Start Page 396, Quote Page 397, University of Washington Press, Seattle, Washington. (Google Books Preview)
  6. 1836, The Chinese: A General Description of the Empire of China and Its Inhabitants by John Francis Davis, Volume 1 of 2, Chapter 6: Government and Legislation, Quote Page 202, Published by Harper & Brothers, New York. (Google Books Full View) link
  7. 1898 January 21, The Western Daily Press, Mr. Chamberlain at Liverpool: A Series of Speeches, Patriotism Still a Live Force, Quote Page 8, Column 3, Bristol, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  8. 1901 July 11, The Daily News (London Daily News), Liberal Unionist Dinner: Mr. Chamberlain and the Duke of Devonshire, Mr. Chamberlain’s Warning, Quote Page 2, Column 3, London, England. (British Newspaper Archive)
  9. 1949, Diplomat in Peace and War by Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen, Section: Introduction, Quote Page ix, (Date at end of introduction: May 30, 1948), Published by John Murray, London. (Verified with scans; great thanks Bonnie Taylor-Blake and the University of North Carolina library system)
  10. 1939, Proceedings of the American Society of International Law at Its Annual Meeting, Volume 33, Annual Meeting Held April 27 to 29, 1939, Banquet Held April 29, 1939, Toastmaster Frederic R. Coudert (Honorary Vice President of the Society), Start Page 163, Quote Page 166, Published by American Society of International Law. (JSTOR) link
  11. 1939 May, Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, Volume 18, Number 3, (A Series of Addresses and Papers Presented at the Semi-Annual Meeting of the Academy of Political Science on May 3, 1939), Part I: Preparedness and Foreign Policy, Introduction by Frederic R. Coudert (Trustee of Columbia University), Start Page 267, Quote Page 269, Published by The Academy of Political Science, Columbia University, New York. (Verified on paper)
  12. 1944 August 12, The Saturday Review of Literature, The American Way in War: A Distinguished English Critic Examines Our Fighting Machine by D. W. Brogan, Start Page 5, Quote Page 7, The Saturday Review Associates, New York. (Unz)
  13. 1944, The American Character by D. W. Brogan (Denis William Brogan), Section: Conclusion, Quote Page 169, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified on paper)
  14. 1951 January, The Atlantic Monthly, Volume 187, Number 1, The Power of the Poet by Pierre Emmanuel, Start Page 74, Quote Page 77, The Atlantic Monthly Company, Boston, Massachusetts. (Verified on paper)
  15. 1955 February 11, Hansard, United Kingdom Parliament, Commons, Topic: National Economic Plan and World Development, Speaking: Dr. Barnett Stross (Stoke-on-Trent, Central), HC Deb volume 536, cc2195-258. (Accessed hansard.millbanksystems.com on December 19, 2015) link
  16. 1965, Essais: Albert Camus by Albert Camus, (Speech delivered at Uppsala University in Uppsala, Sweden on December 14, 1957), Start Page 1079, Quote Page 1079, Éditions Gallimard, Bibliothèque de La Pléiade, Paris. (Verified with scans)
  17. 1969, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death by Albert Camus, Translated from the French by Justin O’Brien, Essay: Create Dangerously, (Lecture given at the University of Uppsala in December 1957), Start Page 249, Quote Page 249, Alfred A. Knopf, New York. (Verified with hardcopy)
  18. 1999, Greetings, Carbon-Based Bipeds!: Collected Essays 1934-1998 by Arthur C. Clarke, Edited by Ian T. Macauley, Essay: Space and the Spirit of Man, Start Page 226, Quote Page 229, (Bibliographic note in book on page 542: “Space and the Spirit of Man” first appeared in “Voices from the Sky” which was published in 1965 by Harper & Row, New York), Published by St. Martin’s Press, New York. (Verified on paper)
  19. Website: John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, Speech title: Day of Affirmation Address, Speaker: Robert F. Kennedy, Speech Location: University of Capetown, Capetown, South Africa, Speech Date On Website: June 6, 1966, Website information: “The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum is dedicated to the memory of our nation’s thirty-fifth president”, (Accessed jfklibrary.org on January 5, 2016) link
  20. 1969 December 28, The San Diego Union, The Happening ’60s–A TV Special by Donald Freeman (TV-Radio Editor), Quote Page C5, Column 3, San Diego, California. (GenealogyBank)
  21. 1987, Change in Schools: Facilitating the Process by Gene E. Hall and Shirley M. Hord, SUNY Series: Educational Leadership, Quote Page 330, Published by State University of New York Press, Albany, New York. (Google Books Preview)
  22. 1995 September 18, Time, Spirit of Sisterhood by James Walsh, Time Inc., New York. (Online Time magazine archive)
  23. 2004 (Copyright 2003), Living History by Hillary Rodham Clinton, Chapter: Conversations with Eleanor, Quote Page 258, Scribner, New York. (Google Books Preview)