Chinese word for "crisis"

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Chinese word for crisis.svg
Traditional Chinese危機
Simplified Chinese危机
Hanyu Pinyinwēijī

The Chinese word for "crisis" (simplified Chinese: 危机; traditional Chinese: 危機; pinyin: wēijī) is frequently invoked in Western motivational speaking as being composed of two Chinese characters respectively signifying "danger" and "opportunity". This is, however, incorrect, as the primary meaning of the character pronounced (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) is not "opportunity".[1][2]


American linguist Benjamin Zimmer has traced mentions in English of the Chinese term for "crisis" as far as an anonymous editorial in a 1938 journal for missionaries in China.[3][1] But its use probably gained momentum in the United States after John F. Kennedy employed this trope in speeches in 1959 and 1960:[1]

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters,
one representing danger and the other, opportunity.[4]

Referencing the word 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.[5] 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.[6][7]

Benjamin Zimmer attributes the appeal of this anecdote to its "handiness" as a rhetorical device and optimistic "call to action",[8] as well as to "wishful thinking".[9]

Popular mistranslation[edit]

Sinologist 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.[9] While the character wēi () does indeed mean "dangerous" or "precarious", the character () is highly polysemous and does not, in isolation, translate as "opportunity".[9] The confusion no doubt arises from the fact that (機) is a component of the Chinese word for "opportunity" jīhuì (機會/机会, literally "meeting a critical point").

According to the 10th Edition of Xinhua Zidian, the best-selling Chinese dictionary, the character (機) in wēijī (危機) means "a point where things happen or change", this meaning appears to be neutral, from which derive two other meanings: "an event that has a confidential nature", and "chance (opportunity), good timing" which appears to be a positive one.[10]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c Zimmer, Benjamin (27 March 2007). "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
  2. ^ "The Straight Dope: Is the Chinese word for "crisis" a combination of "danger" and "opportunity"?"
  3. ^ Chinese Recorder (January 1938, "The Challenge of Unusual Times")
  4. ^ Speeches by President Kennedy at United Negro College Fund fundraiser, Indianapolis, Indiana, 12 April 1959, and Valley Forge Country Club, Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, 29 October 1960
  5. ^ Kessler, Glenn (2007-01-19). "Rice Highlights Opportunities After Setbacks On Mideast Trip". The Washington Post. p. A14. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  6. ^
  7. ^ Gore, Al (2007-12-10). "Al Gore: The Nobel Peace Prize 2007: Nobel Lecture". Oslo: Nobel Foundation. Retrieved 2007-12-12.
  8. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (22 March 2007). "Stop Him Before He Tropes Again". Language Log. Retrieved 19 January 2009.
  9. ^ a b c Mair, Victor H. (2005). "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray". Retrieved 15 January 2009.
  10. ^ Xinhua Zidian (in Chinese) (10th revised, large-print ed.). Beijing: Commercial Press. 2004. p. 205. ISBN 7-100-02893-0. ❶事物发生、变化的枢纽:生~.危~.转~.(引)1.对事情成败有保密性质的事件:军~.~密.~要.2.机会,合宜的时候:随~应变.勿失良~.好时~.[...]. image. Translation: ❶ a point where things happen or change. e.g. 生机, 危机, 转机. Derivation1. an event that has a confidential nature which can lead to success or failure. e.g. 军机, 机密, 机要. Derivation2. chance (opportunity), good timing. e.g. 随机应变, 勿失良机, 好时机[...]