Origin of “May you live in interesting times”

interesting times

The coronavirus pandemic has caused me to think a lot lately about the saying “May you live in interesting times,” which is reported to be a Chinese curse. But just where does this adage really come from? We’ll investigate that today.

The Phrase Finder website says: “‘May you live in interesting times’ is widely reported as being of ancient Chinese origin but is neither Chinese nor ancient, being recent and western.”

According to the site, the phrase was originally said by the American politician, Frederic R. Coudert, in 1939. He referred to a letter Sir Austen Chamberlain wrote to him in which he stated:

. . . 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.'”

Despite this, it does not appear to actually come from China and is not clear to have existed before Sir Austen Chamberlain allegedly said it.

Note that then it appeared as “interesting age.” By the time Robert F. Kennedy included it in his “Day of Affirmation Address” in Capetown, South Africa, in 1966, it had morphed into “interesting times.”

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.

Though the curse may not have been Chinese, what RFK said I hope applies today. It certainly feels dangerous and uncertain, but I hope wonderfully creative and positive things come out of this, as well.


Erin Servais is the founder of Dot and Dash, LLC, an author-services company focusing on women writers and offering a range of editing, coaching, and social media packages.

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