• Felicia Schwartz

Crisis in Chinese means Opportunity ! But does it ?

Have you noticed the rather numerous articles lately opening with the old chestnut about how the word for “Crisis” in Chinese also means “Opportunity”? This is of course in reference to the Covid crisis and how the interruptive nature of crisis can generate new opportunities, which sounds especially insightful when wrapped in the mysterious wisdom of the Chinese language.

But is it true? Like a huge number of modern Chinese words, the word for “crisis” is a compound of two characters: 危 (wéi) and 机 (Jī). Characters can often have different meanings according to context, i.e. other characters they are compounded with. The character危 (wéi) I have only ever seen in a context of danger as in 危险 (wéi xiān), literally danger, or critical 危急 (wéi jí) ….By the way, note that机 (jī) and 急 (jí) are homophones, of which there are also a lot in Chinese, in other words two syllables that sound the same but have different meaning. So the “Ji” of critical is different to the “Ji” in crisis. Confused yet?

Let's go back to the 机(jī) in crisis. Here, jī means a point of juncture. So a crisis is a “dangerous point of juncture”. The same Jī forms part of the word for opportunity 机会 (jī huì), literally “meeting a point of juncture”. To summarize, 机 (Jī) is used in its meaning of “point of juncture” (or point where things change), and so forms part of both words for Crisis and Opportunity. In other combinations. the same character机 means machine (as in 飞机 or “flying machine”, also known as an airplane.)

Actually, there are sayings in Chinese about the relation between crisis and opportunity, one of them goes like this : 危机与机会并存/机遇与挑战并存 (crisis and opportunity coexist, opportunity and challenge coexist.) But the word for crisis does not “mean” or “contain” opportunity. So that’s that.

This made me think of two things; the first is a course on early Chinese thought I am taking at the moment on Edx. Edward Slingerland, who teaches the course, gave me pause for thought when he commented that Westerners tend to “over-exotify’ the Chinese language and that this is not a helpful approach to learning or approaching other cultures. I agree and admit to having sinned myself by drooling over Chinese characters and over-eagerly (mis)quoting Confucius occasionally.

It also made me think of the current debate on racism. On the very wide scale of bias towards other cultures, exotification is probably not the worst one but it doesn’t promote understanding either. At best it keeps us on the surface of culture without nuance or depth, and at worst it can lead to cock-ups like the infamous D&G incident where an exotic Chinese damselle awkwardly attacks her pizza with chopsticks, as the Chinese obviously do because they don’t have hands like the rest of us. I can tell you that crisis did not bring much opportunity to D&G in China!

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