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A lot of people, mostly those who haven't studied Chinese, like to claim something along the lines of

"In Chinese, the word for crisis 危机, also bears the meaning of opportunity."

This is usually said right before or after making a remark that a crisis can also be a possibility.

My thought on this is that it was originally written as 危险机会 (or 危险的机会), meaning a "chance of danger", or "possibility of danger". And then, as in many other cases, character 2 and 4 dropped, to make the word 危机. In this way, it has become a misunderstanding that the word means both "danger" and "opportunity", as both of these words are represented.

My questions are

  • Am I totally wrong?
  • Do Chinese speakers really think of 危机 as both "crisis" and "opportunity"?
  • Do Chinese speakers use 危机 to describe some kinds of crises (possibly fortunate ones, less severe etc), and use another word for other kinds?
  • How many kinds of crisis are there? And what are they? – fefe Jan 16 '12 at 9:47
  • Catastrophies, disasters, missed deadlines, lack of competent labor, lack of funds, missed flights, lack of credit, food shortage etc – Lars Andren Jan 16 '12 at 12:19
  • Lars, is your question related to the New Chinese Year Event? – Alenanno Jan 16 '12 at 12:32
  • @Alenanno no, not at all. – Lars Andren Jan 17 '12 at 11:27

12 Answers 12

16

Victor Mair has an essay answering your question directly:

Danger + opportunity ≠ crisis, how a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray.

[...] Like most Mandarin words, that for “crisis” (wēijī) consists of two syllables that are written with two separate characters, wēi (危) and jī (機/机).

[...] While it is true that wēijī does indeed mean “crisis” and that the wēi syllable of wēijī does convey the notion of “danger,” the jī syllable of wēijī most definitely does not signify “opportunity.”

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.

[...] jī added to huì (“occasion”) creates the Mandarin word for “opportunity” (jīhuì), but by itself jī does not mean “opportunity.”

  • 1
    No. But it's sad how far this rumor has gone. I've even heard Chinese hosts on CCTV-9 say this garbage. Think of how callous one would have to be to say this: Oooh look, Hurricane Katrina wrecked New Orleans... what an opportunity for gain! – stevendaniels Jan 17 '12 at 13:49
  • 1
    lo, behold, the CAT in KATRINA... – flow Dec 16 '13 at 13:51
  • It is not pleasant to think of pain as part of growth, but it is frequently true. Whether any given individual will interpret crisis as an opportunity has more to do with optimism than empathy. – Waylon Flinn Mar 19 '14 at 13:24
  • 2
    Great answer, great essay. 危机 as a word definitely does not mean opportunity at all. However, there is an expression/saying 危机与机会并存/机遇与挑战并存, which means "opportunity accompanies crisis/challenge". But you can see here "opportunity" is an explicit part of the phrase. This phrase often used to describe a time of change. Authorities used to use it to motivate people by bending adversity into opportunity. Basically a half glass of water thing. – user1228520 Aug 3 '14 at 5:31
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    Big ups to @user1228520 for noting that Chinese is a fertile language for word associations. Mair is quite right about the meaning of 危机 per se. But 机 is a part of 危机 whereas "cat" is not a part of "catastrophe" (a latinized form of the Greek prefix "kata" is!). Character writing naturally adds a dimension to word associations that alphabetic languages do not have. – Colin McLarty Nov 12 '15 at 20:19
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Mair's essay is great but perhaps tl;dr. Here I just give two simple examples to illustrate the absurdity of trying to transliterate every individual character in Chinese - it may sometimes work but not always.

Each character can mean very many different things in many different contexts, and when paired together with other characters. The two characters in crisis = 危机 (wēi + ) can BUT need not be transliterated as 危 (wēi) = "danger" and 机 () = "opportunity".

As Mair notes, 机 () = "opportunity" is not a very good transliteration in any case, but let's accept it for the sake of argument. It is not however the only possible transliteration.

Example #1

Airplane = 飞机 (fēi + )

where the second character is the same as that for "crisis". The first character 飞 fēi is here (appropriately) transliterated as "fly(ing)". If we insist on transliterating the second character 机 () in this context again as "opportunity", then an "airplane" = "flying" + "opportunity". Which is absurd.

In this context, 机 () is more appropriately transliterated as "mechanism" or "machine", so that "airplane" = "flying" + "machine".

Example #2

Organic = 有机 (yǒu + )

where again the second character is the same as that for "crisis". The first character 有 (yǒu) can be transliterated as "there is". And so again if we insist on transliterating the second character 机 () in this context again as "opportunity", then "organic" = "there is" + "an opportunity". Which is absurd (except to organic food proponents seeking Chinese nuggets of wisdom).

In this context, 机 () is difficult to transliterate - but if one insists on doing so, perhaps "life" or "substances capable of life" is the best. The word on its own does not quite have a sensible transliteration. So 有机 = "there is" + "life" = Organic.

  • Brilliant stuff! – Lars Andren Nov 27 '19 at 10:19
  • For the second example, something closer to the "machine" sense - as in the first - "possessing mechanism/automative power", actually seems to work very well. – The_Sympathizer Jan 30 at 7:10
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no "危机" doesn't mean danger + oppuntunity. It means dangerous times or crisis. It only means danger (危) + opportuniy (机) when we artifically separate the two words and attempt to interpret each word on its own.

An easy example off the top my head is "小心". It means "be careful". It is incorrect to separate the two words and re-interpret their meanings as "小" (small, tiny), "心" (heart). Being careful is not the same as having a small heart.

  • Thank you, this is what the accepted answer is stating as well (although in a briefer way). – Lars Andren Sep 20 '14 at 18:35
5

"機" in "危機" means the tendency of occurrence. (說文解字: 機之用主於發。故凡主發者皆謂之機。) It carries a neutral meaning.

4

I've never heard "危险机会", and I don't think it is valid in Chinese.

"危机" does not carry the meaning of "opportunity".

However, there are always opportunities in a crisis situation. Sometimes the ability of a person can be only shown in crisis situations. So a crisis is sometimes considered as an opportunity to appeal one's ability in achieve some task. And in overcoming a crisis, people can get various award or promotion. This should be how "危机" is linked to opportunity.

EDIT:

With respect the different crises given by the OP in the comment, "危机" can be used for all of them. However, a disaster can be a crisis to a country, and a missing deadline is only a crisis for a single person.

"危机" is used to refer to severe situations. There would not be "fortunate" ones.

2

"危机" is not short for "危险机会". never heard that.

it means "danger",but more serious than general "danger"!

For Example,if the company has some critical trouble,we can say that the company has "危机". By contrast,it also has chance to put the company back on its feet.

  • False. Please see K. Shen's accepted answer for very descriptive and complete analysis of this question. – Lars Andren Nov 7 '13 at 7:08
  • oh sorry,I've always used 危機 in my way..... i'll check it. thx! – Lily Yu Nov 14 '13 at 1:27
1

Does 危機 really mean both crisis and opportunity?

Yes or No.

No, when Chinese saying this word with no second thought, we don't imply the meaning of opportunity.

Yes, you still can "interpret" this word separately to mean both crisis and opportunity, to show a positive attitude, since 危 mean crisis and 機 can roughly mean opportunity.

  • I don't agree. Please see K. Shen's accepted answer for very descriptive and complete analysis of this question. – Lars Andren Sep 7 '15 at 4:10
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As others have clearly demonstrated, 危机 does not simply break apart into

  1. short for 危险 (danger) and
  2. short for 机会 or 机遇 (opportunity).

In short, that's not how Chinese works. However, it is sometimes used idiomatically. Examples:

  1. 危机,既是危险也是机遇 (source)
  2. 危机等于危险加机遇「危机中的机遇」 (source)
  3. 危机,有危险也有机遇 (source)
  4. 危机传播:危机与机遇并存 (source)
  5. 危机=危险+机遇 (source)

Searing Baidu for 危机 危险 机遇 gives many pages of examples. It may have evolved from improper usage, but that's how languages develop.

In English, we might say there's no I in team. Obviously, there's a whole lot of words that don't contain I (and my sister likes to point out how there's an "m" and an "e"); it's illogical to think it has the same implications for every non-I-containing word. You're meant to forego the literal meaning.

  • A very interesting and well-written answer, I like this a lot. Excellent input! So idiomatically in a longer phrase that explains it like 危机与机会并存/机遇与挑战并存, yes the meaning is there, becuase " 危机" and "机会" are both there. By itself "危机" does not bear that meaning. – Lars Andren Nov 28 '19 at 9:27
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QUOTE:- "Contextually 机 appears in lots of words where it doesn't bring the meaning of "opportunity"

That's not entirely true, for in other areas it does. We therefore have 机 不 可 失, (don't let slip an opportunity)

Please don't get me wrong. I am not disputing that 机 does have many other meanings, context which have nothing to do with "opportunity"

Such as machine, engine, 生 机,(lease of life), etc, as Kenny Li correctly pointed out. I am saying that he has not explored the wider range of uses for 机

We therefore also have areas where 机, (used singularly), means opportunity, such 机 遇,(favorable opportunity),and 趁 机, (take or seize the opportunity)

The point is that there is nothing contextually, linguistically wrong or improper to read or interpret the 机 in 危 机 as "opportunity"

And therefore when people, motivational speakers, politicians say that in a crisis, a 危 机 situation of danger, there are also opportunities to be seized or had by, if you like, unscrupulous opportunists, (as in a war, there are opportunities for gun runners), I have no particular linguistic objections.

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I am not at all literate in the Chinese written language (as I understand that as spoken languages, Cantonese and Mandarin are further apart than they are textually). I only hope to add that language is always morphing and growing in meaning, and this is a universal phenomenon. That is, to claim that any word within any language “means this or that”, is to misunderstand language entirely. Few words are singularly defined, and still fewer retain their original meaning over the period of multiple generations. Languages are fluid in application and context, therefore a words “meaning” can merely be subjective to its placement within syntax, and the time within which it is used (and by whom it is being used), to name only a few variables concerning words and their definitions. I only hope to add to the dialogue, and am not claiming expertise in any way.

  • That's a good point. If everyone starts using it like that, and saying that "this means that", then that is what it means. However, the question is whether that is a meaning that people have come up with "along the way", or if the actual etymology shows that is how the word has been constructed in far past. – Lars Andren Jul 17 '19 at 10:25
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What is so wrong interpreting 危机 (crisis / dangerous situation) which is made up of:-

危 险 = danger (definitive meaning)

机 会 = opportunity (definitive meaning)

as "within a situation of danger, (a crisis), there are also opportunities to be had"?

Just as in English, the phrase "bitter-sweet" has to be wrong because you cannot have anything both bitter and sweet at the same time?

The phrase, bitter-sweet, has therefore to be interpreted to make any sense. Just drink a cup of sweetened coffee and you know what I mean.

I therefore see no objection to "interpreting" 危 机, which by itself means crisis / situation of danger, as contextually having within it elements of both danger and opportunities. Just as in a cup of sweetened coffee there are both elements of sweetness and bitterness.

  • That's the point, it is not made up of 危 险 and 机 会. It's made up of 危 and 机. Unless 危 机 has elements of 飞机 in it? And 小心 means small heart? Contextually 机 appears in lots of words where it doesn't bring the meaning of "opportunity". Kenny LJ's answer elaborates on this. – Lars Andren Nov 27 '19 at 10:23
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危:危險,危急 (danger)

機:先兆,徵兆 (omen)

  • 唐 司空圖《連珠》:“蓋聞變可揣,明難辨勢。金石之懸已扣,孰謂識微;風雲之候未形,罕知能制。”
  • 清 李漁《閑情偶寄‧頤養‧卻病》:“病未至而防之者,病雖未作,而有可病之與必病之勢,先以藥物投之,使其欲發不得,猶敵欲攻我,而我兵先之預發制人者也。”

危機:

  1. 潛伏的禍害或危險 (hidden danger) :危機四伏

  2. 嚴重困難的關頭 (crisis):經濟危機

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