Learn a word today!

Debunked: "Crisis = Danger + Opportunity"

Crisis equals opportunity

Surely you've heard this one: the Chinese word for "crisis" (危機, weiji in Chinese, kiki in Japanese) is composed of the two characters for "danger" and "opportunity". This reveals the wise Oriental insight that a crisis is an oportunity for progress, an impressive outlook we'd all do well to emulate. Or so we've been told for decades by management gurus, New Age philosphers, generic pundits, and even world leaders.

But as you might guess from that lead-in, the claim is false. Let's take this opportunity to aid a word in crisis:

Dissecting a crisis

Keeping mind that there's not necessarily a neat, one-on-one relationship between a Chinese character and an English word, the first character, 危, does indeed carry meanings of "danger".

But the second character, 機, carries a heap of potential meanings – all the more so when appearing in a combination, as in 危機. The character can appear in words meaning "opportunity" (like 機会), but does not itself mean "opportunity". 

Wikipedia has its own entry correcting the meme. A much more thorough article by a Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania really lays down the law:

...the syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify "opportunity"... [It] 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... It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits... A wēijī in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English. 

The professor further makes clear that analyzing a Chinese (or Chinese-derived Japanese/Korean) word is not as simplistic as slapping some English word onto each character involved, and then interpreting those combined English words as one wishes. Rather, in the same manner as the English words we're all used to, a Chinese word simply means what it means – and in this case, "crisis" only means "crisis".

Sorry, culturologists; there are no "cultural differences" or ancient Oriental insights to be found here.

Variations on a theme

One hopes that the meme will die out through repeated corrections, though that may be wishful thinking; the "crisis = opportunity" claim is so appealing! For now, it's still floating about – and morphing into ever-more-wrong variants:

  • On The Simpsons, Lisa twists the trope into one of identical words: "Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for 'crisis' as they do for 'opportunity'?" Homer: "Yes! Cris-atunity." (Okay, we'll cut The Simpsons a break; they probably changed the meme on purpose to make the joke.)
  • There there's this: "It's said that the Chinese symbol for change incorporates the figures for 'chaos' and 'opportunity'." That's a common error, mistaking multiple Chinese characters for a single character. The injection of "chaos" into the meme, though, is the first I've seen. 

How about you, readers? Seen any more mistreatments of the poor Chinese crisis?



Danger + Opportunity

Translating languages is difficult, especially when one language relies on concrete words and the other uses symbols that can have many meanings.  Though in Chinese/Japanese/Korean etc, the actual kanji or word used doesn't mean 'opportunity', when translating the meaning into English to explain it, the many meanings are taking into account and the best, nearest word in English is used.  The purpose of translating is not always to be literal but to translate meaning, so the context is not lost.  When the word 'opportunity' is used, it is meant to imply what the dangerous moment offers. And also to look at what a crisis is, in English terms.  Yes, a crisis is a dangerous moment, even in English, but what is dangerous about it?  For many, it represents a time in somoene's life when they simply can't go on as they have been.  The crisis is the make or break point, the moment when something has to change.  The danger is the may take a negative action.  But what else can happen?  The moment is also an opportunity to do things differently, to try something new, to stop with the old ways.In choosing the wrods dangerous + opportunity to explain crisis, - I'm talking about choosing the English words to explain it - more than just the surface, literal meaning was used.   

This wizbang just sapped the Qi out of my life.

Actully, I am fluent in both Korean and Mandarin. Danger-Opportunity is one interpretation, as Danger-Incipient Monent is just another reasonable interpretation. The eminent professor from UPenn is simply referring to how it is sometimes used TODAY... For example, in today, "disease" is interpreted as "pathology" but could it also mean "dis + ease (OF aise for comfort). Of course. It depends on what period of British history you are looking at.If you are going to spend time, why not spend it on something that is inspiring, not nitpick with equally reasonable, but duller interpretation. I hope my grandkids don't tell me that they will want to grow up to become a "debunker." What a dull thing to do.I see kids like you studying in grad schools focused on coming up with something clever for their PhD thesis. Ah, so dull. Will you please do something a little more inspiring. What happened to all those flower children? I surely miss them. Yes I do. Putting flowers on gun barrels. What happened to those sweet people.These clever kids, all passionate about turning the world upside down, attempting to dissect mysticisms that they have to hide behind a reference or a professor. "Well, I'm not really good at this, but this professor said..."Well, I don't really care that much, except, I wish to see less of these clever articles that's supposed to debunk anything.


Add new comment


User login