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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 signifying "danger" and "opportunity" respectively. While the original meaning of wēijī is "danger at a point of juncture," and many linguists and native Chinese speakers highlight the errors in its Western reinterpretation, the term's "danger-plus-opportunity" meaning has been so widely used by politicians, businesspeople, and in popular culture that its alternative etymology has been picked up all over the world, including by some native Chinese speakers.

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


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.[1][2] But its use probably gained momentum in the United States after John F. Kennedy employed this trope in campaign speeches in 1959 and 1960:[2]

In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters,
one representing danger and the other, opportunity.[3]

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.[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]

Popular mistranslationEdit

The primary meaning of the second character in wēijī, pronounced , (simplified Chinese: ; traditional Chinese: ) is not "opportunity".[2][9] 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.[8] While the character 危 (wēi) does indeed mean "dangerous" or "precarious", the character 機/机 () is highly polysemous and does not, in isolation, translate as "opportunity".[8] The confusion likely arises from the fact that 機/机 () 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 considered authoritative in China, the character 机/機 () has multiple meanings[10]:

  • Meaning 1. "a point where things happen, change", examples: 危机 (wēijī), [...]
    • Derivative Meaning 1.1. "an event that has a confidential nature", examples: [...]
    • Derivative Meaning 1.2. "chance (opportunity), good timing", examples: [...]
  • Meaning 2.[...]
  • [...]

Therefore, it could be somewhat misleading and biased to translate "机" () in the context of the word "危机" (wēijī) to "opportunity" instead of "a changing point" or "a confidential event".

See alsoEdit


  1. ^ Chinese Recorder (January 1938, "The Challenge of Unusual Times")
  2. ^ a b c Zimmer, Benjamin (March 27, 2007). "Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens". Language Log. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  3. ^ 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
  4. ^ Kessler, Glenn (January 19, 2007). "Rice Highlights Opportunities After Setbacks On Mideast Trip". The Washington Post. p. A14. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  5. ^
  6. ^ Gore, Al (December 10, 2007). "Al Gore: The Nobel Peace Prize 2007: Nobel Lecture". Oslo: Nobel Foundation. Retrieved December 12, 2007.
  7. ^ Zimmer, Benjamin (March 22, 2007). "Stop Him Before He Tropes Again". Language Log. Retrieved January 19, 2009.
  8. ^ a b c Mair, Victor H. (2005). "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray". Retrieved January 15, 2009.
  9. ^ "The Straight Dope: Is the Chinese word for "crisis" a combination of "danger" and "opportunity"?"
  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, 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[...]