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Jon Kabat-Zinn's estimable (2013) Full Catastrophe Living (Revised edition): Using the Wisdom of Your Body and Mind to Face Stress, Pain, and Illness has an odd "Chinese character for X" blooper: "Maybe there is something to be learned from the fact that the Chinese character for 'breakthrough' is written as 'turning'" (e-book loc 8495, last sentence in chap 12).

I can't find this claim made elsewhere, and none of the usual suspects for "breakthrough" means "turn":  tūpò 突破, tūwéi 突圍, dǎtōng 打通, dǎpò 打破, kāitong 開通, dǎchuān 打穿, chuāntòu 穿透, tūwéi 突圍, kuìwéi 潰圍, etc.

Perhaps Kabat-Zinn was thinking of zhuǎnzhé 转折 (lit., "turn-break / twist / bend / snap / turn back", etc., etc.). If so, there are two main problems with his claim that "the Chinese character for 'breakthrough' is written as 'turning'", viz.:

1. zhuǎnzhé 转折 is not a character; it is a word consisting of two characters / syllables

2. zhuǎnzhé 转折 does not mean "breakthrough"; it means "transition" or "turn in the course of events"

Kabat-Zinn's claim that "the Chinese character for 'breakthrough' is written as 'turning'" reminds me of the oft-repeated assertion the "the Chinese character for crisis = danger + opportunity", which is false on two similar grounds:

1. wēijī 危 机 is not a character; it is a word consisting of two characters / syllables

2. wēijī 危机 does not mean "danger + opportunity"; it means "crisis"

See "danger + opportunity ≠ crisis:  How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray".

Failing to distinguish between character and word has bedeviled many a reader of Chinese, both native and foreign.

[Thanks to Michael Carr]



  1. Bruce Rusk said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 9:20 am

    Perhaps related to guai 夬, the name of the 43rd hexagram in the Book of Changes, sometimes translated as "breakthrough"?

  2. julie lee said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 10:52 am

    Bruce Rusk,

    Yes, I think you're right, that Jon Kabat-Zinn was referring to guai 夬, sometimes translated as "breakthrough". Guai 夬 is probably an archaic pronunciation (which may still survive in some topolects). The Hanyu Da Cidian (the OED of Chinese) gives the Standard Modern Mandarin pronunciation of 夬as "Jue", which means "break", "cut", or "cut through". There is a medieval Chinese expression kaijue 開決 in Tiantai Buddhism which means "open break(through)" "break through (to the next level of understanding)". Maybe it's also used in other contexts.

    It is well known that the archaic initial g- or k- sound of archaic Chinese often became palatalized to j- or q- (k-) sound in Mandarin. 夬 is also the archaic form of the character
    jue決. The three (dots) on the left of the character jue決 is the semantic element that was added to the earlier phonetic element 夬 to distinguish it from other words with the sound 夬, so we have kuai 快 "quick" "happy", que (kwe) 缺 "gap" "lacking" , etc.

  3. julie lee said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 12:28 pm

    Apologies to Prof. Mair. He is right about "turning", that Kabat-Zinn probably meant 轉折 (literally "turn [and] cut/break "), “turning", not Yijing hexagram 43, jue夬 "cut" "break[through]".

  4. Victor Mair said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 2:30 pm

    I very much appreciate the efforts of Bruce Rusk and julie lee to find a one character Chinese term meaning "breakthrough". They are right that 夬, as the name of one of the hexagrams in the Book of Changes, does have that meaning. Unfortunately, I do not know of any connection between 夬 and "turning". Instead, as julie points out in both of her comments, its meaning of "breakthrough" derives from the basic sense of "cut {through}" of 夬.

  5. TheStrawMan said,

    April 15, 2014 @ 8:19 pm

    I immediately thought of 転機, which also means "turning point" or perhaps "breakthrough" in Japanese. But it's not a single character.

  6. Victor Mair said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 8:46 am

    Suggested by Marcus Bingenheimer:

    He might he be thinking of 轉依 (āśrayaparivṛtti)? As a psychologist he would be interested in Yogacara.

    zhuǎnyī 轉依 (lit., "turn-depend / rely on")

    āśrayaparivṛtti (“transformation of the basis”)

    But still, this one is also two characters, not one.

  7. Dave Cragin said,

    April 16, 2014 @ 10:45 pm

    Thanks for posting the link to your article about danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: (危机/weiji )

    Because I teach risk assessment and my work relates to this, I've often seen that "in Chinese, danger + opportunity = crisis", but until now, I didn't realize it was incorrect. I vaguely remember a similar explanation for words related to either hazard or risk, but I can't recall them. However, I suspect the explanations were wrong for reasons similar to those you outline with weiji.

  8. hanmeng said,

    April 18, 2014 @ 3:39 pm

    A look at the OED told me that "crisis" derives ultimately from Greek "κρίνειν" ("to decide"), that "danger" is derived from Latin "dominium" ("lordship" or "sovereignty"), and that opportunity is from Latin Portūnus, the name of the protecting god of harbors.

    No doubt there is something to be learned from that.

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