[Ads-l] Quote: May you live in interesting times (Chinese curse?)

Benjamin Barrett mail.barretts at GMAIL.COM
Sun Dec 20 06:10:06 UTC 2015

Thank you for the kind response, Garson. I’ve looked into this a little further. I’ve tried to consolidate this e-mail but it’s still a little rambling. Spoiler alert: nothing definitive except for the author, library and title of the short story in the first three paragraphs below.

The name of the author is provided on the English Wikipedia page (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_you_live_in_interesting_times) as Feng Menglon, which is linked to a page with his name as Féng Mènglóng (馮夢龍 or simplified as 冯梦龙). 

As to a library with the source, World Cat (http://bit.ly/1QyqqoY) lists 241 libraries.

Citation 3 on the “May You” page leads to the Chinese Wikipedia page (https://zh.wikisource.org/zh/醒世恆言/第03卷). This page has the quote. The title is volume 3 "賣油郎獨占花魁” which corresponds to "The Oil-Peddler Wins the Queen of Flowers” translated by Shuhui Yang and Yunqin Yang (http://bit.ly/1OfGEMS).

A red herring: Somewhat confusingly, the title at the top of the UW translated book page also says "volume 3", but it seems clear that this “volume 3” refers to volume 3 in the UW's Ming Dynasty series. For corroboration, see https://zh.wikisource.org/wiki/醒世恆言, which is the name of the anthology by Féng and has 40 “volumes”, that number matching the number of “stories" in the translated book.

As to finding an actual citation, I Googled for the citation in Chinese, and what found me surprised me: it doesn’t come up, other than the Wikipedia site and a couple other sites that are irrelevant. Even the Chinese sites that come up _don’t_ have the expression.

So, trying to coax the expression out of one of the Chinese sites that comes up (www.88dushu.com), I Googled

site:www.88dushu.com "宁為太平犬莫做亂离人"

which yielded suggestions for related terms, including:


My knowledge of Chinese is all based on Japanese, so looking at this is like knowing French and trying to read Portuguese, but all of these variations look very close to each other and to the original. The second character in the last related term, for example, is synonymous (with respect to certain meanings) to the second character in all of the other forms, and that similarity applies to the fifth character in the last related term as well.

Perhaps a red herring, but the second related term, 寧為太平犬莫作亂離人, appears in a Googled-dated 1717 book by 初園丁氏 titled "虞陽說苑” (http://bit.ly/1RwYvFW), which is a different author and does not match any of the titles at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Stories_to_Awaken_the_World, which is the book cited by Wikipedia.

The other related terms do not yield anything that is not recent—though that is not conclusive whatsoever, of course.

Trying out a different angle, I tested out the first character on Wiktionary and realized 宁為太平犬莫做亂离人 is simplified (the first character also doubles up as a non-simplified character). Converting this expression to traditional characters at http://www.chinese-tools.com/tools/converter-simptrad.html yields 寧為太平犬莫做亂離人, and that does have hits, but hits only for a handful of recent books.

Going back to the English Wikipedia article, citation number 3 says that the source is written vernacular. It seems that “written vernacular” means something along the lines of simplified characters and perhaps modernized (such as rewriting Chaucer in Modern English) since Classical Chinese is its own beast ("Classical Chinese is a traditional style of written Chinese that evolved from the classical language, making it different from any modern spoken form of Chinese”, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Classical_Chinese).

One last stab: Googling on "醒世恆言”, the title of the work in which this appears according to citation note 3, yields a small number of seventeenth century hits, but the content cannot be viewed.

My conclusion is that the best guess as to the original citation is the version I got from converting from simplified to traditional (寧為太平犬莫做亂離人), but that cannot be verified by Google and is likely merely a modernized/vernacularized version of the original. At this point, it appears that looking at the source document in a library is required. 

FWIW, it appears like there is more information on the Dutch page (https://de.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mögest_du_in_interessanten_Zeiten_leben), though it may as well be Greek to me.

FWIW, the Wikipedia version of the quote is provided on a Korean page at http://m.blog.naver.com/rooki12k/220505290581.

Benjamin Barrett
Formerly of Seattle, WA

> On Dec 19, 2015, at 15:16, ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
> Thanks for your response, Benjamin. I have seen the Wikipedia entry,
> and the QI entry included a discussion of the thematically related
> Chinese expression that you mentioned:
> Better be a dog in peace than a man in anarchy.
> The QI entry gives an 1836 citation for the English language version
> of the adage above, in part, because I think the curse "may you live
> in interesting times" is a distinct expression, and the curse
> formulation apparently originated in English.
> Perhaps you can help to find an earlier solid citation for the Chinese
> expression (and its translation). I would be very appreciative.
> Wikipedia states:
> [Begin excerpt]
> The expression originates from Volume 3 of the 1627 short story
> collection by Feng Menglong, Stories to Awaken the World. [3]
> [End excerpt]
> But Wikipedia does not give the name of the short story. Wikipedia
> points to a document in Wikisource, but I was unable to determine the
> exact provenance of the document. In what library is the document
> held? Can you determine that? Who created the translation into
> English? What is the citation for the English translation?
> Wikipedia and Wikiquote are both valuable resources, but, as you know,
> they contain plenty of errors.
> I try to check or re-check all citations; hence, my bibliographic
> notes on the QI website contain shorthand phrases describing the
> verification method, e.g., Verified on paper, GenealogyBank, JSTOR,
> Google Books Full View, British Newspaper Archive, ProQuest,
> HathiTrust Full View, Unz, NewspaperArchive, et cetera.
> Garson
> On Sat, Dec 19, 2015 at 5:19 PM, Benjamin Barrett
> <mail.barretts at gmail.com> wrote:
>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header -----------------------
>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>> Poster:       Benjamin Barrett <mail.barretts at GMAIL.COM>
>> Subject:      Re: Quote: May you live in interesting times (Chinese curse?)
>> -------------------------------------------------------------------------------
>> I had always wondered about that expression, thank you.
>> FWIW, Wikipedia =
>> (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/May_you_live_in_interesting_times) has =
>> the original Chinese, tracing it back to a 1627 anthology by F=C3=A9ng =
>> M=C3=A8ngl=C3=B3ng.=20
>> Benjamin Barrett
>> Formerly of Seattle, WA
>>> On Dec 19, 2015, at 12:51, ADSGarson O'Toole =
>> <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM> wrote:
>>> =20
>>> ---------------------- Information from the mail header =
>> -----------------------
>>> Sender:       American Dialect Society <ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU>
>>> Poster:       ADSGarson O'Toole <adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM>
>>> Subject:      Quote: May you live in interesting times (Chinese =
>> curse?)
>>> =
>> --------------------------------------------------------------------------=
>> -----
>>> =20
>>> Bonnie found a great new citation in 1936 for the expression "May you
>>> live in interesting times".  The QI website now has an entry on this
>>> topic. New citations and feedback would be welcome.
>>> =20
>>> http://quoteinvestigator.com/2015/12/18/live/
>>> =20
>>> Here is some background about the citation: The most fascinating
>>> periods in history were filled with tumult and upheaval. Tales of
>>> treachery, wars, and chaos provide compelling reading, but many of the
>>> participants who were living through the momentous changes were
>>> experiencing fear, hunger, and pain. Here are three versions of a
>>> saying that has commonly been described as a Chinese curse:
>>> =20
>>> May you live in interesting times.
>>> May you live in an interesting age.
>>> May you live in exciting times.
>>> =20
>>> Fred and Ralph Keyes examined the supposed curse and found no
>>> substantive evidence that it was a genuine Chinese curse.
>>> =20
>>> Bonnie found the earliest citation containing the phrase and labeling
>>> it a curse. The phrase was used in a speech by Austen Chamberlain that
>>> was described in "The Yorkshire Post" of West Yorkshire, England in
>>> March 1936.
>>> =20
>>> [ref] 1936 March 21, The Yorkshire Post, Lesson of the Crisis: Sir A.
>>> Chamberlain's Review of Events, Quote Page 11, Column 7, Leeds, West
>>> Yorkshire, England. (British Newspaper Archive)[/ref]
>>> =20
>>> [Begin excerpt]
>>> Sir Austen Chamberlain, addressing the annual meeting of Birmingham
>>> Unionist Association last night, spoke of the "grave injury" to
>>> collective security by Germany's violation of the Treaty of Locarno.
>>> =20
>>> Sir Austen, who referred to himself as "a very old Parliamentarian," =
>> said:--
>>> =20
>>> "It is not so long ago that a member of the Diplomatic Body in London,
>>> who had spent some years of his service in China, told me that there
>>> was a Chinese curse which took the form of saying, 'May you live in
>>> interesting times.' There is no doubt that the curse has fallen on
>>> us."
>>> =20
>>> "We move from one crisis to another. We suffer one disturbance and
>>> shock after another."
>>> [End excerpt]
>>> =20
>>> Garson
>> ------------------------------------------------------------
>> The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

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