Chinese Curses

Confucius: 551-479 B.C.

“May You Live in Interesting Times”

            Like many Americans, my youthful understanding of Chinese wisdom was restricted to the Fortune Cookies, I received with my tea, at the Peacock Restaurant in my hometown of Fitchburg, Massachusetts.

They all said clever and upbeat little things like: “A Great Fortune Awaits You” (I kept that one; I’m still awaiting the Great Fortune; it seems to be running late). It went on like this for years, Chinese food once a week with the gang from work, then sharing the great wisdom we found when we broke the Fortune Cookies apart, dunked them into our tea and read each other our futures.

In all those years, we only had one embarrassing moment: My friend, Bill Nicholas, was recuperating from a heart attack and bypass surgery, when we gave him a welcome back luncheon at our favorite Chinese restaurant. When it came time to break open the Fortune Cookie, Bill’s was the only cookie I have ever seen that held no fortune. It was empty. Bill seemed depressed. We all wondered what could be the meaning of this. I guess it wasn’t all that important: Bill is in his healthy mid-eighties now, and we still do Chinese luncheons (complete with Fortune Cookies).

Then one day at work, sometime in the early Seventies, one of my managers said to another: “May you live in interesting times.” I had no idea what that meant, and asked Harvey, my mentor, to explain. “It’s an old Chinese curse,” he said. “It supposedly goes back centuries when ‘Interesting Times’ meant times of great stress, deprivation and even war. It is a harsh thing to say.It was a genteel curse.”

I was hooked. Were there other such Chinese Curses that had escaped my notice? I decided to find out. I already read everything I could find, including the cereal boxes at breakfast, so it was not a big jump to do a little research on Chinese Curses. This research started, pre-Internet, with encyclopedias and reference books, and continued on through Googol and Wikipedia.

I learned that there were three such Chinese Curses, and “Interesting Times” was considered to be the least severe of the lot. Here are the three in ascending order of harshness:

1. “May you live in interesting times.”

2. “May you come to the attention of important people.”

3. “May your every wish be granted.”

I find that third one particularly scary.

Naturally, I now wondered if there was a similar Chinese Blessing. I could find no reference to such a thing, although I did look on and off for years. I found nothing, until recently, that is.

I was reading a book published in England. The author told about the birth of his first son. He showed the infant to an elderly Chinese gentleman who lived in his village, and asked if he had an appropriate blessing for the child. The old man said he had. Bending over the baby, he smiled and said: “May you be ordinary.”

If you think about that for a while, like I did, you’ll realize that considering all the alternatives and possibilities, “ordinary” is a pretty good way to go.

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