Is the Chinese word for “crisis” a combination of “danger” and “opportunity”?

SHARE Is the Chinese word for “crisis” a combination of “danger” and “opportunity”?

Dear Cecil: I’ve heard it said (many times recently!) that the Chinese word for “crisis” is the same as that for “opportunity.” I find it difficult to believe, but is it really true? Alison Raouf, via the Internet


Illustration by Slug Signorino

Cecil replies:

I like your skeptical attitude, but we’d better get the story straight before we start acting superior. The usual explanation is that the Chinese ideogram for “crisis” is made up of two characters signifying “opportunity” and “danger.” To Westerners, this exemplifies the ancient wisdom of the East and is cited frequently by motivational speakers, self-help books, and the like, e.g., “A crisis provides an opportunity for change and growth as well as a danger of regression or stagnation,” etc.

No question, it’s deep. But deep what? Here are my initial findings:

  1. In pinyin (romanized Chinese), the term for crisis is wei ji.
  2. Native Chinese speakers tend to think the crisis = danger/opportunity connection is complete bullshit.
  3. Maybe it isn’t.

In Chinese, the word for danger is wei xian and opportunity is ji huay. These are obviously two different words, native Chinese speakers note, so it’s not literally true that crisis in Chinese is a combination of danger and opportunity. The fact that wei ji (crisis) contains elements of both terms is happenstance, they say, just as in English multiply and multifunctional aren’t synonymous even though they share a prefix. (This example provided by Alison, who has been doing some more research on her own.)

Maybe so. On the other hand, perhaps what we’ve got here is a lot of people who don’t understand their own language. Let’s inquire more closely. Ji, taken by itself, means moment, chance, or opportunity (also machine, but let’s disregard that), as in zhuan ji (change opportunity), shi ji (time opportunity), qi ji (cutting-in opportunity), or tou ji (plunge-into opportunity). Wei, on the other hand, means dangerous, precarious, high, as in wei xian (danger risk), wei shi (danger time), or wei hai (danger damage).

So the danger/opportunity interpretation isn’t completely baseless. But let’s stop kidding ourselves. The simplest explanation is that wei ji literally means precarious moment — a pretty close approximation of crisis, and not necessarily one meant to suggest a paradox. No doubt the rendering of ji as opportunity is the work of a nonnative speaker who naively added the optimistic twist this word implies to speakers of English. Wu Hung, a Chinese scholar at the University of Chicago, says that originally wei ji didn’t even mean crisis. “Ji has a range of meanings, including opportunity but also danger,” he says. “When the third-century Chinese began to use the word wei ji, they simply meant danger — a meaning emphasized by both characters.”

Still, if I were Chinese and a bunch of foreigners wanted to impute timeless insight to my ancestors, I don’t know that I could find it in my heart to object.

How the rest of ’em do it

Dear Cecil:

Shortly after reading your response to Lianna’s question about how dinosaurs had sex [October 6], I found the enclosed in a used bookstore: How They Do It: From Cats to Bats & Sharks to Frogs by Robert A. Wallace (1980). Despite its disappointing dearth of dinosaur dating data, I felt compelled to forward the book straightaway. Lianna’s letter betrayed an endearing naivete, which one might call anthroposexualmorphism. After rejecting as dinosaurily impossible all of two sexual positions — missionary and rear-entry — she’s stumped for alternatives. Were she to read Dr. Wallace’s book, she’d learn that there are about as many forms of copulation as there are species. …

— David English, Somerville, Massachusetts

Cecil replies:

Sorry to cut you short, David, but brevity is the soul of wit. Among the many critters you definitely want to be glad you’re not:

(1) Bedbugs. Rather than insert his member in the usual receptacle, the male drills through from behind and ejaculates through the female’s back.

(2) Whales. “The brightly colored and elastic penis [is] a foot in diameter and a full ten feet long.” OK, it’s not all that horrifying, but don’t tell me you haven’t always wanted to know.

(3) Rabbits. A pack of males pursues a female. The winner claims his prize by urinating on the female and mounting her, although his concentration is no doubt impaired by the fact that an envious fellow male may be pounding him on the head. Having entered, the male ejaculates immediately, the recoil often knocking him out of the box and causing one or the other partner to shriek in apparent pain. Often the other males take this opportunity to pile on. Rabbits, I’m telling you — they’re animals.

Cecil Adams

Send questions to Cecil via