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May you live in interesting times

News from China has been interesting this week, indeed, which lead to a discussion of the supposed Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times.” We have a small collection of what I think of as “apocryphal” Chinese sayings. Chinese proverbs are so extensive and varied that it seems awfully easy (and convenient) just to make one up to suit the occasion, and so many people have. Of course these sayings get picked up by others, and before you know it they’re everywhere, like invasive species. President Kennedy and his speechwriters seem to have been lively propagators of made-up Chinese sayings, at least according to the sources I’ve found online. I offer these two extracts, from The Phrase Finder and from Wikipedia with several grains of salt (an English phrase that no doubt would lead me down yet another trail).

The phrase was introduced in the 20th century in the form ‘interesting age’ rather than ‘interesting times’ and appears that way in the opening remarks made by Frederic R. Coudert at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science, 1939:

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.

This citation has to be treated with caution as Chamberlain didn’t speak Chinese and never visited China, although he was in contact with diplomats stationed there during his time as British Foreign Secretary, that is, 1924-1929. We have the 1939 citation in print, so the ‘interesting age’ form must be at least that old. If we are to believe Coulson’s assertion, the phrase dates from before 1936 and, if we trust in Chamberlain’s recollection, we can push the origin back to pre-1929.

As to the currently used ‘interesting times’ version, we can only date that to post WWII. No one is sure who introduced the term but the person who did most to bring it to the public’s attention was Robert Kennedy. In a speech in Cape Town in June 1966, Kennedy said:

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 more open to the creative energy of men than any other time in history.

The Phrase Finder via May you live in interesting times.

And from Wikipedia:

No known user of the English phrase has supplied the purported Chinese language original, and the Chinese language origin of the phrase, if it exists, has not been found, making its authenticity, at least in its present form, very doubtful. One theory is that it may be related to the Chinese proverb, “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period” (???????????; pinyin: níng wéi tàipíng qu?n, bú zuò luànshì rén).[citation needed] Other cultures, such as Polish, attribute the saying to either Chinese or Jewish origin.[1]

The saying has also been attributed to the fictional Chinese storyteller Kai Lung invented by the English Edwardian author Ernest Bramah,[2] who wrote many pieces of fiction involving the character between 1896 and his death in 1942, but its appearance in any of his stories has not been documented.

The Yale Book of Quotations quotes the phrase “May you live in interesting times” as cited to “American Society of International Law Proceedings vol. 33 (1939).” The Yale Book of Quotations also states that “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.”[3]

via May you live in interesting times – Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

On a more practical note, here are two articles about the interesting events of the week in China: @karenchristenze RT @adamminter “…the bats of rumor take flight” & the FT on developing drama (maybe) in Beijing.


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