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May You Live In Interesting Times

racism Asian
Phil Chu
Phil Chu
Making software since the 80s

That ancient Chinese curse, “May you live in interesting times,” seems increasingly appropriate these days. However, it’s not Chinese, and not particularly ancient.

I didn’t realize this until I looked it up recently on QuoteInvestigator and Wikipedia, after realizing that I’ve never heard anyone in my family say it (although it’s not like we had dinner conversations discussing ancient Chinese sayings), and during six months in Hong Kong the only Chinese curse I heard was the Cantonese equivalent of “fuck” (which I heard repeatedly because I had trouble distinguishing between the six Cantonese tones and the woman who was trying to to teach me the word had to whisper it repeatedly in my ear — so basically she was talking dirty to me and I was totally unable to appreciate it).

I don’t know about Mandarin or other Chinese dialects, but, like much of the language in general, Cantonese cursing tends to be succinct. “May you live in interesting times,” is about as cutting as “Delete your account.” But it might work in rap.

So rather than another case of cultural appropriation, this quote appears to be a case of cultural misattribution, promulgated by Austen Chamberlain, son of Joseph Chamberlain (patriarch of a pre-Kennedy Kennedyesque British political dynasty), who was perhaps born ahead of his time. Austen would be at home in these modern days making ironic hipster statements and sporting nonsensical Chinese tattoos. And he would be living in interesting times.