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Chinese word for "crisis"
Chinese word for "crisis"

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.


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]

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 mistranslation

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]:

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".

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