Weiji: Crisis = Danger + Opportunity?

In the context of the current economic situation we’re in, I often hear it mentioned that the Chinese word for “crisis” (wēijī) consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wēi and jī. The idea behind this is that whenever there’s a crisis, there’s an element of danger, but also an element of opportunity.

Sounds good in theory, but like many other urban myths, there’s little truth in it.  Victor H. Mair, professor of Chinese language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania, wrote a detailed article explaining the flaws in this line of reasoning, but I’ll just summarise this for you.

Chinese character wei 危
Chinese character ji1 in simplified form 机
Chinese character ji1 – in traditional form 機

Prof Mair’s contention is that the definition of as “opportunity” is flawed. While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.” According to Prof Mair:

The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry. A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits.

Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements meaning “danger” and “opportunity” are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit.

Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.

In such perilous times, we must confront the brutal truth, but at the same time not give up hope. If Warren Buffett is buying now, surely we have to stand up and take note.

I’m a firm believer in the idea of buying when others are selling, and capturing opportunities in times of crisis. Unfortunately we can’t use the Chinese word for “crisis” (wēijī) to support this line of reasoning.

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About The Author

Kenneth is Director of Euroasia. He is passionate about languages and cultures.