May you live in interesting times.
If 2020 had been a Hollywood movie, that would have been the perfect tagline. And the sequel, now underway, could be titled “2021: Extraordinary Times.”
Widely — and wrongly — believed to be an ancient Chinese curse, the statement “May you live in interesting times” was apparently coined less than a century ago, according to scholars and historians, both Eastern and Western. In 1939, the year World War II began, American attorney Frederic R. Coudert made the first recorded mention of the phase. Speaking at the Academy of Political Science in New York, Coudert quoted from a letter he’d received from British statesman Sir Austen Chamberlain:
” . . . 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, no age has been more fraught with insecurity than our own present time.”
Nearly 30 years later, in June 1966, then-U.S. Senator Robert F. Kennedy furthered the notion in a speech to students at the University of Cape Town, South Africa:
“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.”
Authorities in the field of Chinese proverbs have speculated that the saying was probably created by Americans and attributed to the Chinese in an effort to lend credence and an air of mystique. Sort of like the 1970s Calgon commercials which featured laundryman Mr. Lee and his “ancient Chinese secret.”
While researching the origin of the “interesting times” blessing/curse, I learned that many so-called “ancient Chinese proverbs” are neither ancient nor Chinese. Call it racial stereotyping, cultural appropriation or misguided marketing, the “Confucius say . . .” theme has long been a favorite of the English-speaking world.
In a 1959 speech, John F. Kennedy said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity. In a crisis be aware of the danger, but recognize the opportunity.”
Numerous inspirational speakers and authors have repeated that notion, even before JFK made it famous, but it isn’t accurate. It’s true that the Chinese word for “crisis” — weiji — is composed of 2 characters, and the first means “dangerous.” But the second character, when written alone, translates to “change point.” Linguists attribute the inaccuracy to Western romanticism or wishful thinking. Apparently, the misinterpretation led to (or stemmed from) another supposedly Chinese proverb:
A crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind.
I found no evidence that Confucius or any other Eastern philosopher came up with that one, but I like the poetry of it.
My research also reminded me that nearly every generation, in nearly every corner of the world, perceived themselves as living in interesting, if not extraordinary, times. This was a bit of comfort in the midst of chaos and dismay brought on by last week’s insurrection in D.C. and coronavirus spikes here at home.
I also found reassurance and inspiration in an ancient proverb which does appear in Chinese literature and is, I think, highly appropriate for these days:
When the winds of change blow, some people build walls while others build windmills.
In these interesting times, may we all live in the beautiful breezes of windmills, rather than under the shadows of walls.
* Kathy Collins is a radio personality (The Buzz 107.5 FM), storyteller, actress, emcee and freelance writer whose “Sharing Mana’o” column appears every other Wednesday. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.