May You Live in Interesting Times?, Dr. Ho Yong

Have you ever heard of the proverb, "May you live in interesting times"? Were you told it was a Chinese proverb? You may be surprised when you read Dr. Ho Yong's answer to  this question in response to a question from the PBS show, "Newshour with Jim Lehrer."

I recently received a request from the PBS television show, "Newshour with Jim Lehrer," to verify the original source of the Chinese proverb, "May you live in interesting times." Newshour was told that in this context, "interesting" means dangerous or turbulent; therefore, the whole phrase is something of a curse. However, I couldn't think of any Chinese proverb that says anything to that effect.

So I consulted Torrey Whitman, our President (President of the China Institute in New York City), who is versed in classical Chinese and is especially knowledgeable in the area of proverbs and sayings. Interestingly enough, he told me he was familiar with this saying. Thus, I happily turned this request over to Torrey. The following is what he wrote about his response to the Jim Lehrer show:

"I explained to the news show staff that the usual expression was, "The ancient Chinese curse, May you live in interesting times."  There is nothing proverbial about it, and no harm or danger is intended to the recipient of the curse. 

The point of the phrase has long been meant to be ironic:  on first glance, "interesting times" should be good times to live in, so stating it as a curse adds the sense of irony. We live in very interesting times, but after reading in the newspaper about tragedies, politics, war-mongering, and so on, have you longed for simpler, less turbulent times? Think how difficult and frustrating it is to choose among the twenty varieties of coffee now offered at the corner coffee stand, or the 138 channels on cable TV. Hence, the "curse" that you live in "interesting" times.

But what is most noteworthy about the expression is that it is not Chinese. There is no such expression, "May you live in interesting times," in Chinese. It is a non-Chinese creation, most probably American, that has been around for at least 30 or 40 years.  It appears in book prefaces, newspapers (frequently in the New York Times) and speeches, as an eye- or ear-catcher, although I have not found it in Bartlett's Quotations or other quotation sourcebooks.  I speculate that whoever it was who first coined it attempted to give the expression a mystique, and so decided to attribute it to the Chinese.

There is an irony in this, too.  Confucius, endeavoring to give his opinions and teachings greater gravity and acceptance, once stated, "I do not create; I merely pass on the wisdom of those who have gone before." The same device of attribution is at work here: the "curse of interesting times" is much more interesting itself if the Chinese created it."