It is basically true that the modern word for "crisis", wei2-ji1 or wei1-ji1, is analyzed as "danger" + "opportunity".

Maybe the most appropriate thing at this juncture is to discuss the meanings of the second morpheme, "opportunity". I will concentrate on the etymology of the character, since in my experience that is the kind of thing that most interests people, and about which the least accurate information is to be found at large.

The graph with which it is written is what is known as a "xiesheng character", meaming a phonetic compound character. On the left side is a determinative element "wood" (helps narrow down the meaning of the whole character) and on the right is a phonetic element (indicates the character's basic sound).

The phonetic element in this case is the true etymon (we might say, the "root") of the full character: it appears to be a huiyi character, combining an element meaning "fine, minute" with another element meaning "to protect by force of arms". The Shuowen Jiezi defines it as "subtle" and also "dangerous" and explains its structure as signifying "to meet with a subtle sign and resort to force of arms".

The main meaning of the xiesheng character ("wood" added to "subtle sign") )is "trigger of a crossbow", clearly related to the idea of a subtle but powerful military moment. Derived meanings include "weapon" (in general), "key object or idea", and "turning point" or "crucial moment". The twin modern meanings "opportunity" and "crisis" are both survivals of this last sense, and as you can see they conserve some of the basic meaning of the original ancient etymon.

One of the most idiomatic modern expressions incorporating this character is shi2-ji1, "time" + "trigger", meaning something like "turning point" or "key moment in time". The concept of seizing the correct moment is of great importance in traditional Chinese thought, military and otherwise. It is a little different from "carpe diem" - can anyone suggest a comparable Western classical expression?

The Crisis/Opportunity Meme
- or -
Sometimes a Problem is Just a Problem

I've noticed this a lot lately. While listening to someone speak they get to the point where you would think the next word out of their mouth is going to have to be "problem" or "disaster" or "fiasco" and you can see them start to form such a negatively connotated word. But then - slight pause - mental gears grinding furiously - and the word which actually emerges is "opportunity".

It could be some CEO quoted on the business news with a gem like this: "We view the fact we have spent 70 million dollars of venture capital and managed, thus far, to bring in $27.50 in revenue as a huge prob... er opportunity which will strengthen our resolve to dominate in this market."

Behind all of this is a meme which goes as follows:

The Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of two symbols: "danger" and "opportunity".

I went searching for some evidence to prove or disprove the correctness of this linguistic analysis1. In the course of doing this I found many examples of this quote (or something very much like it) used in the context of a motivational speech. It seems to be a great line to use when one's crew is about ready to mutiny and one is grasping for some way to prevent the inevitable. Then again, there are cases where a crisis can lead to thinking out of the box and cause a change in direction with good consequences.

Regardless of what you think about the wisdom of the Chinese, this fact remains: Sometimes a problem is just a problem. If you just locked your keys in the car, what you have is a problem. If you failed to make your house payment for three months in a row, what you have is a problem. If you jump out of an airplane and then remember you left your parachute in the overhead bin, what you have is a problem (but at least it's one which will be resolved fairly quickly).


1. I hate citing URLs on E2 because they are so brittle. A google search for "crisis opportunity" will render a ton of results. There is a nice writeup on www.straightdope.com.

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