[NOTE: This post was updated January 2017]
JFK was wrong. On pinyin.info, a website about the Chinese language, Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, firmly corrects an American linguistic blunder that interprets the word “crisis” in Chinese as meaning both “danger” and “opportunity.”
“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.” -Victor H. Mair
While this linguistic faux pas, no doubt, dates much further back, it was perhaps a speech delivered by President John F. Kennedy, in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959 that is most memorable. In his speech, Kennedy incorrectly said, “The Chinese use two brush strokes to write the word ‘crisis.’ One brush stroke stands for danger; the other for opportunity.”
As Professor Mair explains (the three paragraphs below are taken directly from Dr. Mair’s article):
[The word] “crisis” (wēijī) consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wēi and jī. . . . 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 (italics added for emphasis) 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.
If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means “opportunity” (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely “crisis” (viz., a dangerous, critical moment). One might choose, for instance, zhuǎnjī (“turn” + “incipient moment” = “favorable turn; turn for the better”), liángjī (“excellent” + “incipient moment” = “opportunity” [!!]), or hǎo shíjī (“good” + “time” + “incipient moment” = “favorable opportunity”).
Takeaway: It is scary how easily we take things at face value and accept them as “truths” or “facts” without ever doing the proper research.
*For a more comprehensive discussion, please visit Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray.
Written By: Steve Nguyen, Ph.D.
Leadership & Talent Development Consultant
Danger + Opportunity ≠ Crisis. How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray. http://www.pinyin.info/chinese/crisis.html
John F. Kennedy Quote. http://quotationspage.com/quote/2750.html
Victor H. Mair. Professor of Chinese Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania. https://ealc.sas.upenn.edu/people/prof-victor-h-mair