danger + opportunity

This entry on pinyin.info looks at the misunderstanding of the construction of characters. This tendency – particularly among the writers of motivational/new age books it seems! – to interpret every hanzi character as imparting some kind of philosophical lesson is fascinating. I suppose it is part and parcel of the ‘Eastern Wisdom’ fetish, which also includes sanskrit tattoos.


  1. I do love Eastern Wisdom, especially since I am in a professional position to both get great joy out of deflating it and to get great benefit out of peddling it.

    My own favorite take on this was a (New Yorker?) cartoon someone had on their door that I was stupid enough to not copy. It’s a one-panel that shows two Chan/Zen monks in a meditation room, the one saying to the other “It is not for us to question why, on some days, the master is silent.” From our angle we can see that what is up on the platform is a cardboard cut-out of the Master, who is in fact laying behind the platform getting in a bit of extra sleep. If only I could pull that off myself.

  2. I thought the name of the author sounded familiar…then I realized he was in my EALC department here at Penn. Marvelous!

  3. In addition to New Age books, I would point to a genre of elementary guides to Chinese characters as a major proponent of the ‘oriental wisdom’ view. Breaking down characters into components and tying them together with a spurious explanation may be useful as a mnemonic device, but it is probably also the source of many firmly-held, facile understandings fed to beginning students.
    So, while in general sympathy with the pinyin.info post, I think Prof. Mair may be somewhat too categorical in his refutation. Certainly, in the specific context of 危機 there is no reason to doubt that ‘ji’ does not represent ‘opportunity.’ When he goes further and states that “There is no traditional use of jī that means “opportunity” per se,” I think he may be a little too emphatic. The Hanyu dacidian 漢語大詞典(1986 edition) lists 23 definitions for the individual character ji, and one is 時機, 機會. Without making an exhaustive survey, most Chinese-English dictionaries seem to render these terms into English as “chance” or “opportunity.” More compelling, I think, are the example sentences adduced by the Hanyu dacidian as evidence for this usage. To quote only two:
    “得機而動, 則能成絕代之功”
    “Grasping the opportunity and acting, one is then able to achieve unparalleled success.”
    “凡用兵之道, 莫神於得機”
    “As for all ways of using military force, none is more miraculously effective than grasping an opportunity.”
    There is certainly much room to quibble with the crude translations I offer here, but it seems clear at least that the Hanyu dacidian staff are quite correct in bracketing these examples into a category where ‘ji’ has positive connotations, and indeed exactly matches the definitions of ‘opportunity’ given by Prof. Mair himself:
    1. a favorable juncture of circumstances;
    2. a good chance for advancement or progress.
    To summarize, then, I entirely agree with Prof. Mair’s argument concerning the term ‘weiji’, but cannot agree with the further assertion that the character ‘ji’ itself never has positive connotations similar to opportunity. Certainly ‘pivotal moment’ or the like could also be used to translate the examples above, but I think the English word ‘opportunity’ comes closer to capturing the meaning in this sense.

  4. Thanks so much for this excellent post and link! In my view so much of this “popular wisdom” about Chinese culture and thinking is so similar to the spurious “commencement addresses” transmitted through the Internet, attributed to people such as Kurt Vonnegut, but in fact totally fabricated.

    I am curious as to whether the old training nostrum about “giving a a beggar a fish to feed him for a day,” vs. “teaching him how to fush to feed him for a lifetime” is actually a Chinese proverb, as is usually stated.

  5. Could someone tell me where the Chinese word ‘geming’ meaning ‘revolution’ came from? I remember as a boy my father said when he was a boy he was horrified because in figuring out the meaning of this term of 2 compound characters, he came to the conclusion that ‘geming’ means to terminate life (or lives), which he equated to killing people. Was the original meaning of the term ‘revolution’ in Europe also of such meaning?

  6. About “geming”。”ge” means “change”, not terminate; “ming” is “tianming”, not human life – tianming means the ruling power appointed by God (shangtian).
    As a phrase, “geming” means new dynasty replaces old one, which first appeared at the end of Shang Dynasty.

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