May you live in interesting times

Q: Is the expression “May you live in interesting times” really an old Chinese curse? Or did RFK coin it? Or one of his speech writers? I’ve heard all of these at one time or another. Is there evidence to support any of them?

A: The earliest published reference for the saying that we could find is from the April 1939 annual meeting of the American Society of International Law, though the citation dates the expression three years earlier.

In the Proceedings of the American Society of International Law, Frederic R. Coudert, the group’s honorary vice president, says he heard the saying from a British friend:

“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.’ ”   

Is “May you live in interesting times” (or “in an interesting age”) really an old Chinese curse?

Well, The Yale Book of Quotations, edited by Fred R. Shapiro, says: “No authentic Chinese saying to this effect has ever been found.”

Although we’ve come across several Chinese proverbs that are similar in one way or another, we have to agree with Shapiro that none of them are quite right.

The closest one (寧為太平犬,不做亂世人)  is usually translated as “It’s better to be a dog in a peaceful time than be a man in a chaotic period.”

As for Sen. Robert F. Kennedy, he did indeed mention the saying—or, rather, a close version of it—but this was several decades after the citation mentioned above.

In a June 6, 1966, speech at the University of Cape Town to the National Union of South African Students, Kennedy said: “There is a Chinese curse which says ‘May he live in interesting times.’ Like it or not, we live in interesting times.”

So where do we think the saying comes from?

We don’t know. But if we had to guess, we’d say it originated with the British, perhaps among diplomats or expats who misheard or mistranslated something said in Chinese.

Check out our books about the English language