Chinese word for "crisis"

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Chinese word for crisis.svg
Traditional Chinese 危機
Simplified Chinese 危机
Hanyu Pinyin wēijī

The Chinese word for "crisis" (simplified Chinese: 危机; traditional Chinese: 危機; pinyin: wēijī) is frequently invoked in Western motivational speaking because the word is composed of two sino-characters that can represent "danger" and "opportunity". However this analysis is fallacious because the character pronounced (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) has other meanings besides "opportunity".


American linguist Benjamin Zimmer has traced the English use of weiji back as far as an anonymous editorial in a 1938 journal for missionaries in China.[1][2] But its use probably gained momentum in the United States after John F. Kennedy employed this trope in a speech he delivered in Indianapolis on April 12, 1959:[2]

When written in Chinese the word crisis is composed of two characters.
One represents danger, and the other represents opportunity.[3]

Its meaning was further reinforced when Richard M. Nixon and others employed its use in their own public oratory.

The usage of weiji has since become a staple meme for American business consultants and motivational speakers, as well as gaining popularity in educational institutions, politics and in the popular press. For example, in 2007, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice applied it during Middle East peace talks.[4] Former Vice President Al Gore did so both in testimony before the U.S. House of Representatives Energy and Commerce Committee, in the introduction of An Inconvenient Truth, and in his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance lecture.[5][6]

Benjamin Zimmer attributes the appeal of this anecdote to its "handiness" as a rhetorical device and optimistic "call to action",[7] as well as to "wishful thinking".[8]

Public mistranslation[edit]

Chinese philologist Victor H. Mair of the University of Pennsylvania states the popular interpretation of wēijī as "danger" plus "opportunity" is a "widespread public misperception" in the English-speaking world.[8] While wēi () does mean "dangerous" or "precarious", the element () is highly polysemous. The basic theme common to its meaning is something like "critical point".[8] "Opportunity" in Chinese is instead a compound noun that contains , jīhuì (机会, literally "meeting a critical point").


  1. ^ Chinese Recorder (January 1938, "The Challenge of Unusual Times")
  2. ^ a b Zimmer, Benjamin (27 March 2007). "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009. 
  3. ^ Remarks by President Kennedy[dead link] at the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund
  4. ^ Kessler, Glenn (2007-01-19). "Rice Highlights Opportunities After Setbacks On Mideast Trip". The Washington Post. p. A14. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  5. ^ Testimony of Honorable Al Gore[dead link]
  6. ^ Gore, Al (2007-12-10). "Al Gore: The Nobel Peace Prize 2007: Nobel Lecture". Oslo: Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-12-12. 
  7. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (22 March 2007). "Stop Him Before He Tropes Again". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009. 
  8. ^ a b c Mair, Victor H. (2005). "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray". Retrieved 15 January 2009.