What Does May You Live In Interesting Times Mean?

If someone said to you, “May you live in interesting times,” you’d think they were wishing you an exciting life, right, giving you a blessing of sorts? But like many common phrases, this saying doesn’t mean what it appears to mean. Read on to learn more.

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What Does May You Live In Interesting Times Mean?

The expression may you live in interesting times is always used ironically to wish someone difficulty and trouble in their life. In other words, it’s far from a blessing and much closer to a curse (more on that in a moment). As a refresher, irony is the use of words to express a sentiment or idea other than their literal meaning—in fact, usually the exact opposite of their meaning. In this case, the phrase seems to offer someone well wishes for a fascinating existence, but you now know it means the opposite: hope that they live a tumultuous life. Not only is the phrase itself used ironically, but the word interesting is used ironically, too. Of course, interesting typically means “intriguing, riveting, or enthralling.” But here it’s used much differently. The idea being that life is actually better in “uninteresting times,” when things are peaceful and tranquil, versus “interesting times” of chaos, discord, and even danger. (Surely, the COVID-19 pandemic could be called “interesting times”!)

Here are some example sentences using the expression may you live in interesting times, ironically as it is intended:

  • I’m not the type to be overtly rude to someone’s face, but when a person who has been a bully to me since childhood approached me recently and said something not altogether nice, I replied back, “May you live in interesting times.” 
  • In the story I’m reading, the main character wrote a letter to their sworn enemy and signed off with: “May you live in interesting times.” Ouch! Harsh!
  • I first heard the phrase may you live in interesting times during Robert Kennedy’s speech; indeed, the 1960s were interesting in his sense of the word, marked by many social difficulties.


You may also hear or see the phrase as may you live in an interesting age.

The Origin of the Expression

The phrase is very often reported as an ancient Chinese curse, but there’s no evidence of its Chinese origin, according to Fred R. Shapiro, author of The Yale Book of Quotations. In fact, it doesn’t even appear to be old, rather a modern Western creation. (The closest equivalent in Chinese, a Chinese proverb, translates roughly to: “Better to be a dog in times of tranquility than a human in times of chaos.” This expression can be found in a collection of short stories called Feng Menglong.) Like so many phrases commonly used today, however, its exact origin isn’t known, nor is it clear when or where the myth of it being a Chinese curse originated. (The expression give a man a fish is also often wrongly said to be an ancient Chinese saying.)

We do know that records of the phrase date to at least the 1930s. In a memoir written by the British Ambassador to China around 1936, the author mentions learning of a Chinese curse may you live in interesting times. A little while later, in 1939, Frederic R. Coudert shared hearing of the phrase in his opening remarks at the Proceedings of the Academy of Political Science. He stated: 

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 [Neville Chamberlain], 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.

In fact, as evidenced by a 1936 newspaper article in The Yorkshire Post, Sir Austen Chamberlain used the expression in a speech he gave at an annual meeting of the Birmingham Unionist Association, citing it as an ancient Chinese curse that had fallen upon England thanks to Germany’s violation of the Treaty of Locarno, which saw Germany, France, Belgium, Italy, and Great Britain agree to peace in western Europe.

Language historians suggest that Austen Chamberlain’s father, Joseph Chamberlain, was actually likely the one who told him of the expression. It appears he used the idea of “interesting times” to mean those of disruption and danger in a speech he gave in the late-19th century, in 1898, saying:

I think that you will all agree that we are living in most interesting times. (Hear, hear.) 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. (Hear, hear.) 

It also appears Joseph Chamberlain used “interesting times” in this way in a 1901 speech. However, it’s not clear how Austen Chamberlain came to believe it was originally an old Chinese curse, and not just a saying of his father’s. 

Whatever the original source, Robert F. Kennedy certainly shined a spotlight on the phrase and ushered it into popularity when he used it in a speech he gave in Cape Town, South Africa, in 1966. In it, he remarked:

“For the fortunate among us, the fourth danger is comfort, the temptation to follow the easy and familiar paths of personal ambition and financial success so grandly spread before those who have the privilege of education. But that is not the road history has marked out for us. 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. And everyone here will ultimately be judged—will ultimately judge himself—on the effort he has contributed to building a new world society and the extent to which his ideals and goals have shaped that effort.”

Science fiction author Arthur C. Clarke also used it in an essay he wrote in 1965, in which he called the 20th century “probably the most interesting period mankind has ever known.”  

Summary

Although it sounds like a blessing, the phrase may you live in interesting times is used ironically, and is actually what you’d wish upon your enemy: a “curse” for a difficult and tumultuous life. Indeed, the phrase is often said to be an ancient Chinese curse, although there’s no proof that it’s connected to Chinese culture in any way; in fact, it’s only traceable to Britain and modern times. Although its exact origin is unknown, Robert F. Kennedy popularized the phrase in a speech he gave in 1966.