Ancestors watching over the Boggs home.“That’s in the Chinese characters.” This passing reference by the 96-year-old Chinese-American philosopher Grace Lee Boggs got us wondering. What exactly does she mean? And what do those characters look like?

As it happens, explains our Public Insight Network colleague Melody Ng, the Chinese word for “crisis” consists of two characters: 危 or wei (pronounced “way”) and 机 ji (pronounced “gee”). Wei means dangerous or precarious. Ji means opportunity or chance.

危机

Bound up in the meaning of “crisis” are both danger and opportunity (see update below). In each trying moment, there’s a chance for something positive to occur. Today being Chinese New Year, the Year of the Dragon, what a most auspicious thought to carry forward as we encounter our own crises in 2012.

UPDATE (Jan 31, 2012): Since posting this story, we have since heard from several people on Facebook who dispute Boggs’ interpretation of the meaning of the two characters. Michael Barreto pointed us to an article by Professor Victor H. Mair who takes a much different position on the interpretation of wēijī from Grace Boggs. On the one hand, he offers a better interpretation of jī as “incipient moment” instead of “opportunity”:

“Aside from the notion of “incipient moment” or “crucial point” discussed above, the graph for jī by itself indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jī can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings.”

But since there are other kinds of interpretation, better and worse, is Grace Lee Boggs’ father, a native speaker, really wrong in hers? Professor Mair even offers alternatives for someone looking for jī as “opportunity”:

If one wants to find a word containing the element jī that means “opportunity” (i.e., a favorable juncture of circumstances, or a good chance for advancement), one needs to look elsewhere than wēijī, which means precisely “crisis” (viz., a dangerous, critical moment). One might choose, for instance, zhuǎnjī (“turn” + “incipient moment” = “favorable turn; turn for the better”), liángjī (“excellent” + “incipient moment” = “opportunity” [!!]), or hǎo shíjī (“good” + “time” + “incipient moment” = “favorable opportunity”).”

Though Grace Lee Boggs’ interpretation may not be linguistically accurate, this conundrum reminds us that connotations of meaning are culturally subtle. Meaning can be hidden, reinterpreted, and even evolve within a language as it travels. Though it is dangerous to create posts like this one, it does point to the depth and complexity of language, especially as it crosses cultures. That’s a marvelous thing.

A portrait of Grace Lee Boggs’ father hangs in her Detroit home. Chin Lee was a successful businessman who owned Chin Lee’s American and Chinese Restaurant on 49th and Broadway in New York. (photo: Trent Gilliss)


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3Reflections

Reflections

it's a lovely idea but has little to do with the actual facts related to the language at hand, some research into the context of quotes posted here might make a real difference to the depth of quality and veracity of the blog/show.  You tackle some potentially deep subjects and it would be a shame to fall prey to a kind of short cut and paste editorial style.

Agreed. I'm no expert, but I have heard that the ji character includes the idea of "motion away from", as in "there is a danger, this is your chance to get away". There is opportunity in crisis, but let's not oversimplify, or ignore the dangers. Grace Lee Boggs is extremely intelligent, I'd love to hear her response to this.

I value Grace's insight and experience, and certainly there is some value in how Chinese-American's reinterpret their traditions, but the implication of the post seems to be that there is some traditional/ancient cultural wisdom at work here that is somehow connected to the phrase.

apples