Monday, November 24, 2008

Crisis = Danger + Opportunity

Last week, President-elect Obama's newly appointed chief-of-staff, Rahm Emmanuel, said the following:
"Rule one: Never allow a crisis to go to waste," Emanuel said. "They are opportunities to do big things."
This quote from Emmanuel reminds me of another Democrat from fifty years ago.

On April 12th, 1959 in Indianapolis, then presidential candidate John F. Kennedy said the following:
When written in Chinese, the word "crisis" is composed of two characters - one represents danger and one represents opportunity.
This reference from Kennendy popularized the notion about the unique nature to Chinese's word for "crisis." Al Gore, Condoleeza Rice, and even the Simpsons have all used this idea. In fact, there is even a Wikipedia page entitled - "Chinese translation of crisis" - which gives information surrounding this translation.

Unfortunately, it appears as if this phenomenon is too good to be true.

A detailed debunking (one might say pwnage) of this translation can be found at the website from the Sinologist Victor Maer:
There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of elements that signify "danger" and "opportunity." I first encountered this curious specimen of oriental wisdom about ten years ago at an altitude of 35,000 feet sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling. At that moment, I didn't have the heart to disappoint my gullible neighbor who was blissfully imbibing what he assumed were the gems of Far Eastern sagacity enshrined within the pages of his workbook. Now, however, the damage from this kind of pseudo-profundity has reached such gross proportions that I feel obliged, as a responsible Sinologist, to take counteraction.

Read On
While my studying of Chinese is not anywhere near to the point of being able to fully understand what Mair is saying, I see his main points.

I know both the characters that make up the word crisis: 危机. I know 危 from the word 危险, which means "danger." And I know 会 from a variety of different phrases and usages: meaning to be able to do a learned thing, meaning something will happen in the future, and the words a "meeting" (开会), a "date" (约会), and "opportunity" (机会).

On the surface, I would say that Kennedy's interpretation of the word 危机 is correct. But I suppose that proves that my Chinese isn't that thorough.

I've asked Chinese people about 危机 before. They all agreed with Maer and said that I shouldn't read too much into this romanticized translation. Even after being shot down a bit from Chinese people, I still thought it was pretty cool.

Upon reading Maer's article though, I will all together drop 危机 from what I considered to be a "pretty interesting insight into Chinese linguistics and, possibly, Chinese people's worldview."

I'm also abandoning the notion I've flirted with for a few years which involved getting a small tattoo of 危机 on my back.

Oh yeah, and Emmanuel's quote from the beginning of the article also is not nearly as romantic as before.

We're all screwed on this economic crisis.

1 comment:

Joe Blogs said...

I believe the word you're looking for, to quote Homer Simpson, is "crisitunity."