CRISIS.

You will often see references to the alleged fact that the Chinese character for ‘crisis’ is made up of the word for ‘danger’ plus the word for ‘opportunity’ (or, as here, that the Japanese character is so composed). I have no idea how this claim became so popular, but Victor H. Mair at Pinyin.info has done a thorough debunking:

The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages… The third, and fatal, misapprehension is the author’s definition of jī as “opportunity.” While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.”… The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one’s skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his / her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

There is much more at the linked page, including some “Pertinent observations for those who are more advanced in Chinese language studies.” Many thanks to Grant Barrett for alerting me to the link; I should add that Pinyin.info has all sorts of goodies, including a list of Taipei street names in Chinese characters and Hanyu Pinyin.

Comments

  1. Maier has a publishing series called “Sino-Platonic Papers” which publishes interesting pieces which would not be accepted by a formal academic journal. A special interest of his is intercultural exchange between China, India, the steppe, Persia, and the West. Disclosure: he published one of my things.

  2. The guy’s English needs some debunking.
    RE: “The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).
    So “seize the moment,” for example, has nothing to do with opprotunity?
    機 means a “crucial point (when something begins or changes)” when a positive change, for the better. So maybe that’s not exactly “opprotunity” as used in modern English, but sounds close enough to get the point across, IMHO.

  3. And according to Matthews’ old dictionary, Xinyi Lu should mean “Lutheran Road” (Justification by Faith Road”.

  4. oranckay, it strikes me that there’s a lot of cultural inflection to that interpretation. Platonic and Roman virtues expressed in the culture of the English-speaking world demand that the frontiers exposed by a paradigm shift be crossed with a surfeit of optimism, but do Confucianism and Buddhism express the same ideals?

  5. I think that Maier’s point is good. Unmodified “ji” is neutral and does not mean “opportunity”. Modified “ji” can mean either opportunity or peril.
    Another point not stressed by Maier is they the relation between the meanings of binomes and the meanings of its elements can be anywhere from none to quite a lot. For example “east-west” dongxi just means “thing”, though you can screw around as much as you want to explaining the deeper meaning. And even where there is a relationship, the binome has its own, independent, fixed meaning — just as the English “sidewalk” has one fixed meaning and does not mean “side-trip”, “cat-walk”, or “walk sideways”.
    At the same time, Chinese themselves have a tremendous amount of fun fooling around with fake etymologies, puns, etc., sometimes knowing that they’re just playing around and other times not.

  6. I speak Korean, and read classical (literary) Chinese. Not sure of my Chinese skills I look up “opprotunity” in a Chinese-English dictionary (www.zhongwen.com) or two and wow, what do I get but “機/ji,” and/or “機會,” what happens when a lot of “ji” come at the same time. Note I’m not saying that “ji” exactly equals “opprotunity,” but as used it can and more importantly even if it doesn’t, how Chinese and English words are exact interpretations of each other anyway?

  7. From the Ricci Institute’s dictionary, probably one of the best modern dictionaries of Chinese:
    7 meanings listed for 機:
    (1) mecanism, force, machine.
    (2) important
    (3) secret, occult
    (4) opportunity
    (5) stratagem, clever way of doing something
    (6) Cause, reason for something happening
    (7) changes

  8. There very well may be cases where jī by itself is used in the sense of “opportunity” (there’s 机不可失 jī bù kě shī, “Don’t miss the opportunity” for example), but in these, too, the base meaning of “critical point” is colored by the context. A folk maxim is not likely to advise against letting peril slip out of one’s hands, so jī is interpreted in a positive sense.
    Like John Emerson says, playing with etymologies is not verboten; Mair’s larger point seems to be that ascribing some kind of deeper meaning to an “eastern” interpretation of crisis on the basis of a playful etymology is a mistake. In English, we can toss around things like “When you assume, you make an ass out of you and me”, but to believe that the word was somehow constructed in that way is over-reaching somewhat.

  9. Just because the character is the same, doesn’t mean the various meanings have to be related.
    For the Japanese word that they referred to, “kiki” (危機), the second character can be used in the sense of “opportunity”, as in:
    「まだそのためには機が熟していないと思う。」 (the time is not yet ripe.)
    However, the same character is more often used to mean “machine”, a completely unrelated meaning. Just as the word for calculator, 計算機, shouldn’t be thought of as meaning “opportunity to calculate”, likewise, it’s silly to think of 危機 as meaning “danger-opportunity”. Or “danger-machine” for that matter. It just confuses matters to try to create links between these separate meanings.

  10. Well put — clearer and more succinct than Mair’s explanation.

  11. For the information of regular readers, it may be noted that Pinyin.info was created and is maintained by Banciao, Taiwan-based Mark Swofford, who often comments here (usually on Chinese matters, but not only) as Mark S.
    And just because I’m in a Sino-Platonic mood, I like to think of ji 機 as kairos (same goes for shi 時, I know, but let me dream).
    But what would Christoph Harbsmeier say?
    [Also, that's a detail, but I'm pretty sure wei is second-tone in Taiwanese guoyu (wéi).]

  12. Actually, awhile ago I found some newspaper articles in Chinese that showed at least some Chinese people believe that they’re related.

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