One of the things I learned from my father is that a crisis is both a danger and an opportunity. That’s in the Chinese characters. And how you take advantage of the opportunity of the crisis rather than become despairing because of the danger. Is something we’re facing all the time, particularly at this time. It’s a philosophical approach I think that is very much needed and alive here in the city of Detroit.
“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.
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)