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".
...the jī 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?