July 13, 2006

Life would be more livable if there were any chains left to bust

Cover of  Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950The wires are burning up, here at Language Log Plaza, with information about fake Chinese sayings. Email from Goh Eng Cher provided a link to research by Stephen E. DeLong and Keith Henson, indicating that the "ancient Chinese curse" usually rendered in English as "may you live in interesting times" was introduced into Western discourse in a science fiction story published in 1950. Specifically: Eric Frank Russell, writing as Duncan H. Munro, "U-Turn", Astounding Science Fiction, April 1950, p. 137. DeLong also quotes an email from Mauricio Diaz, who asserts that Carl Jung discusses the same phrase in his 1931 introduction to Richard Wilhelm's German translation of The Secret of the Golden Flower: A Chinese Book of Life. However, DeLong searched the English translation of the relevant book without finding any support for this attribution. And DeLong was also unable to find any evidence that this "ancient Chinese curse" was ever actually used by the ancient Chinese.

With respect to the 1950 Russell story, DeLong writes:

The main character of "U-Turn," Mason, has opted for assisted suicide to escape a regimented life in which Venus and Mars are civilized, life on the Moon is spent safely underground, and wild animals in Earth's jungles are as harmless as if they were artificial. We learn at the end of the story that Mason has correctly surmised that the death chamber to which he voluntarily goes is actually a Star Trek-like transporter which will irreversibly send him where he really wants to go -- to the current human frontier, Callisto, one of the moons of Jupiter -- assuming he is among the small fraction of those who survive the dissociation and reassociation process of the device. But before that, while one of the bureaucrats processes his "death wish," Mason complains about the order, regulation, and control under which everyone is forced to live:

For centuries the Chinese used an ancient curse: "May you live in interesting times!" It isn't a curse any more. It's a blessing. We're scientific and civilized. We've got so many rights and liberties and freedoms that one can yearn for chains for the sheer pleasure of busting them and shaking them off. Reckon life would be more livable if there were any chains left to bust.

Well, as the Aspen quotations remind us, there are always the chains of truth.

Eng Cher, who is a Chinese Singaporean, writes:

It is definitely not something that I heard my family members using as a curse (it won't be a blessing!) while growing up. Even when the younger generation use this phrase nowadays, it is seen as a Western phrase.

In my experience, the usual modern American reason for talking about the "ancient Chinese curse" is to suggest that unpleasant periods of uncertainty and change are the price we pay for moving forward. In post-war America, where this "traditional Chinese" saying seems to have germinated, we've always been ambivalent about novelty. Is it a symptom of progress, bringing us longer and better lives with more and better things, both tangible and intangible? Or have we paved paradise and put up a parking lot?

The view of novelty as disaster rather than progress, which Russell attributed to the Chinese and their allegedly hydraulic empire, also lies behind the traditional (?) Spanish valediction often quoted and used in Patrick O'Brian's sea stories: "Que no hayan novedades". O'Brian translates this as "May no new thing arise", as in the following passage from The Wine-Dark Sea, p. 130. The Surprise is in the port of Callao, and Stephen Maturin is looking for a colleague.

It was high tide on the dusty strand, and as Stephen walked up it towards an archway in the way a gritty cloud swept across from the earthquake-shattered ruins of Old Callao. When it had cleared he saw a group of ill-looking men of all colours from black to dirty yellow standing under the shelter. 'Gentlemen,' he said in Spanish, 'pray do me the kindness of pointing out the hospital.'

One of the men offers to guide him to it. Stephen, who is an eminent amateur ornithologist, tries to learn something about the local species:

In the middle of the square three black and white vulturine scavengers with a wingspan of about six feet were disputing the dried remains of a cat. 'What do you call those?' asked Stephen.

'Those?" replied his guide, looking at them with narrowed eye. 'Those are what we call birds, your worship. And there, before Joselito's warehouse, is the hospital itself. [...] And there I see a vile heretic coming out of it, with his countryman.'

'Which? The little small fat yellow-haired gentleman, who staggers so?

'No, no, no. He is an old and mellow Christian -- your honour too is an old and mellow Christian, no doubt?'

'None older; few more mellow.'

'A Christian though English. He is the great lawyer come to lecture the university of Lima on the British Constitution. His name is Raleigh, don Curtius Raleigh: you have heard of him. He is drunk. I must run and fetch his coach.'

'He has fallen.'

'Clearly. It is the tall black-haired villain who is picking him up, the surgeon of the Liverpool ship, that is the heretic. I must run.'

'Do not let me detain you, sir. Pray accept this trifle.'

'God will repay your worhip. Farewell, sir. May no new thing arise.'

'May no new thing arise,' replied Stephen.

A more condensed discussion of the various versions and attributions for the "interesting times" phrase can be found in the Wikipedia here.

Posted by Mark Liberman at July 13, 2006 07:47 AM