The Chinese Curse

May you live in interesting times…

These words are often attributed to an ‘ancient Chinese curse,’ the clear meaning being that ‘interesting times’ are challenging and often fraught with danger, whereas to live in unintetesting times, would be a blessing by comparison.

However, despite being widely known in English simply as ‘the Chinese Curse,’ and it certainly sounds like something a Chinese person would say in that it is multi-layered and works on several levels, no actual Chinese source for the saying has ever been found. The closest Chinese expression is 寧為太平犬,不做亂世人which translates as, “It is better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos” which can be found in volume 3 of the 1627 short short collection ‘Stories to Awaken the World’ by Feng Meng Long.

Apparently, the first recorded usage of the phrase was in 1936, when a friend of then- British Ambassador to China Hughe Knatchbull-Hugessen told him about it before he left. He wrote about it in a memoir published in 1949. Other researchers claim to have traced the ‘curse’ back to 1898, and this line from a speech given by British statesman Joseph Chamberlain:

“I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. 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.”

My new book, This is China Part 3: The Wilderness Years is out NOW on Red Dawn publishing.

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