March 27, 2007

Crisis = danger + opportunity: The plot thickens

It's a favorite rhetorical device of public figures across the political spectrum, from Al Gore to Condoleezza Rice: the Chinese word for "crisis" (we are told again and again) consists of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Victor Mair has labeled this a "widespread public misperception," though Gary Feng has recently taken issue with Mair, arguing that "the urban myth has some kernel of truth in it." Mair says that the element of wēijī is semantically neutral and better understood as "incipient moment," while Feng counters that usage of is "generally more positive than negative" and thus not too far from "opportunity." Even if this is true, I take Mair's larger point to be that reading wēijī according to its constituent characters is little more than the Sinitic equivalent of the etymological fallacy.

Beyond the arguable nature of the "danger + opportunity" gloss, an equally intriguing aspect is the trope's malleability, as it has been cropping up in a seemingly endless variety of contexts for several decades now. So who is responsible for circulating it in the first place? In our last go-round, I referred to Fred Shapiro's exceptional Yale Book of Quotations, which offers a first cite from John F. Kennedy in a speech to the Convocation of the United Negro College Fund on April 12, 1959. Kennedy may indeed have done a great deal to popularize the "crisis" meme, as he continued to use it in speeches leading up to the 1960 presidential election (for instance, in remarks to the United States-India Conference on May 20, 1959 and at a campaign stop in Valley Forge, Pa. on Oct. 29, 1960). But JFK was hardly the originator of the tale: further research reveals that it was in use among Christian missionaries in China as early as 1938 and creeping into American public discourse by 1940.

The earliest citations I've found so far appear in the Chinese Recorder, a long-standing English-language journal for missionaries in China.* In the January 1938 issue, an unsigned editorial appeared under the title "The Challenge of Unusual Times." The editorialist wrote:

The Chinese term for crisis is "danger-opportunity" (危機). Without the danger there cannot arise the opportunity. It is very fitting then that in this time of "danger-opportunity" there should go forth a call to a Forward Movement in the Christian Church in China. (Chinese Recorder, Jan. 1938, Vol. LXIX, No. 1, p. 2)

A month later, the anonymous writer returned to this theme in an editorial entitled "The Westward Trek":

This is truly a time of crisis for the Christian church in interior and west China. As we pointed out last month the word crisis in Chinese means danger-opportunity. (Chinese Recorder, Feb. 1938, Vol. LXIX, No. 2, p. 54)

The observation about wēijī might have remained in missionary circles were it not for a June 17, 1940 Washington Post column by the noted journalist Dorothy Thompson. Thompson's piece, "Opportunity in Crisis: Thoughts After the Fall of Paris," used the wēijī device to contemplate how Hitler's expansionism could be curbed:

The Chinese write with symbols, with what they call "ideagrams" [sic]. And the Chinese word for "crisis" is "danger plus opportunity." (Washington Post, June, 17, 1940, p. 7)

I don't know how Thompson picked up the wēijī story, but it made enough of an impression on her that she even included in the Post column a large visual representation of the two component characters, glossed as "danger plus opportunity" in the caption (see image to the right).

A big write-up in the Washington Post by a leading pundit — complete with graphic accompaniment — represents a pretty powerful vector, as urban folklorists would say. So it's no surprise that the "crisis" meme could be found spreading in a variety of directions in the World War II years. Here's a sampling culled from JSTOR:

The Chinese word for crisis, "wei chi" translated literally means "dangerous opportunity." The plight of the family in our war-torn world is exactly that. (Katharine Whiteside Taylor, "The Pacific Northwest Conference," Marriage and Family Living, Aug., 1943, p. 65)

The Chinese pictograph for crisis is made up of two characters, one standing for opportunity, the other for danger. In the Chinese meaning of the word, American education is certainly in crisis. (Frank Baker, "Danger and Opportunity," Peabody Journal of Education, Nov. 1943, p. 162)

For a definition of crisis I turn to the Chinese. They, of all people, should know its full meaning. Their word for crisis is composed of two characters, the first signifying danger; the second opportunity. The crisis of liberalism we may then state as the dangers and the opportunities that result from belief in and support of liberal ideals as universal truths and guides to action in the world today. (Pendleton Herring, "Liberalism in Crisis," Canadian Journal of Economics and Political Science, Aug. 1944, p. 287)

It is this confusion, it is this crisis, in the familiar Chinese sense of danger and opportunity combined, that highlights today's "riddle of the Sphinx." Let us call it "Powers or Peoples?" (Leland Rex Robinson, "Powers or Peoples: The Issue of the Peace," Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, July 1945, p. 20)

And as we might expect from memetic transmission, a number of variants also developed. One such variant equates "crisis" with "opportunity," skipping over the messy "danger" part:

In conclusion, it is helpful to recall the Chinese proverb: "Crisis is opportunity." ("Dostoevsky, Novelist of Crisis," Journal of Bible and Religion, Nov. 1943, p. 248)

A notable iteration of the danger-less "crisis = opportunity" variant occurred half a century later in the 1994 "Simpsons" episode "Fear of Flying":

Lisa:  Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use
the same word for "crisis" as they do for "opportunity"?
: Yes! Cris-atunity.

As the above history indicates, JFK shouldn't be accorded all the credit/blame for spreading the wēijī device. When Dorothy Thompson wrote her 1940 column, Kennedy was finishing up his honors thesis at Harvard, later published as Why England Slept. Given his internationalist interests, he might very well have seen Thompson's column, or else he might have picked up the trope from another high-profile source, such as this usage by John Foster Dulles in 1952 soon before serving as Eisenhower's secretary of state:

Christian missions understand crisis in terms of the Chinese character for the word, which is a combination of two characters — one meaning danger and the other meaning opportunity. (Dulles speaking to the National Council of Churches, Los Angeles Times, Dec. 12, 1952, p. 12)

It's interesting that Dulles, a respected lay leader in Protestant circles, brought the trope back to its roots in Christian missionary work. But the device has persisted because it is adaptable to any perceived crisis: from the tenuous grip of missionaries in China, to Nazi encroachment in Europe, to Cold War anxieties over the Soviet Union, to instability in the Middle East, to the perils of global warming. At the same time, I would argue that the flexibility of this figure of speech also blanches it of any substantive meaning. It's the type of rhetorical flourish that seems to lend instant profundity via an exotic linguistic observation, and yet it contributes very little beyond a generic call to action to take advantage of the "opportunity" inherent in a crisis. After nearly seven decades of increasingly hackneyed use, isn't it time to retire poor overworked wēijī?

* A side note about the Chinese Recorder cites from 1938. I tracked them down thanks to Google Book Search, but the hunt pointed up some of the serious limitations currently plaguing Google's growing database of library sources. Searching on the key terms initially led me to the second citation above as well as another one from the Chinese Recorder, both showing a publication year of 1938. From previous experience I knew that the dates given to serials on Google Book Search can be extremely misleading. So I located the bound volumes of the Chinese Recorder at the New York Public Library and confirmed the date of the Feb. 1938 cite, but the other passage dated by Google as 1938 actually appeared a few years later. As for the Jan. 1938 cite above, I only knew about it because of the reference to "last month" in the second cite. It eluded my initial searching, perhaps due to poor OCR, but once I found it in the print edition I was able to pinpoint it on GBS using different search terms (here). Of course, all of these problems are exacerbated by Google's lamentable "snippet view," which severely limits one's ability to see the immediate context of the search results and makes it nearly impossible to determine accurate bibliographic information for serials like the Chinese Recorder. I remain hopeful that Google will straighten out this mess in the not-too-distant future, perhaps when its legal woes begin to be resolved (or at least begin to be more clearly delineated).

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at March 27, 2007 04:09 PM