The crisis-(danger)-opportunity trope, de-Sinicized

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It's been a while since we've seen our old friend, the crisis-(danger)-opportunity trope. In its canonical form, the trope asserts that the Chinese character for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." A simpler variation removes the "danger," suggesting that the Chinese character (or word) for "crisis" is the same as that for "opportunity" (sometimes stated as a proverbial equivalence: "The Chinese say that crisis is opportunity" or "…in crisis lies opportunity").

With or without the "danger" element, the trope is a favored rhetorical gesture by politicians and other public figures looking to pivot from pessimism to optimism. The roster of prominent American trope-users includes John Foster Dulles, John F. Kennedy, Condoleezza Rice, and Al Gore (a repeat offender). Now President Obama joins the list, but thankfully he omits the largely bogus framing device about Chinese hanzi (along with the "danger").

In his weekly address, Obama said:

Yes, this is a moment of challenge for our country. But we've experienced great trials before. And with every test, each generation has found the capacity to not only endure, but to prosper — to discover great opportunity in the midst of great crisis.

I wonder if an earlier version of the address used the full-fledged "Chinese character" line, but then the speech-writers did some legwork, perhaps finding Victor Mair's thorough debunkage on, or even some of the trope-tracking we've done here on Language Log. Here's a list of our posts on the topic:

My post of 3/27/07 gives most of the historical background, taking the trope back to Christian missionaries in China in the 1930s. It also gives a few "danger"-less examples, my favorite of which is this one from "The Simpsons":

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.

Now, according to the President, we are presented with a cris-atunity of our own.

(Hat tip, Randy Alexander.)


  1. jfruh said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 4:50 pm

    One of the interesting things about this trope is that it usually takes as an assumption that the danger-opportunity compound is somehow an artifact of the Chinese writing system. I don't speak Chinese and I'm not a lingust, but I'm assuming that this is is no way the case, right? I.e. the danger-moment compound that actually makes up the word came together outside the context of writing.

  2. Don Sample said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 5:27 pm

    The idea that a crisis also creates an opportunity is something that comes out of the Obama administration quite regularly, but I've never seen it combined with the old trope about the Chinese character.

    "Never let a serious crisis go to waste," is apparently one of President Obama's Chief of Staff, Rahm Emanuel's, favourite sayings. For example there is this article from the Wall Street Journal from November 21, 2008.

  3. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 6:25 pm

    Don S: Thanks for the tip on Rahm. Here he is explaining his "opportunity in crisis" thinking…

  4. Jean-Sébastien Girard said,

    March 7, 2009 @ 11:28 pm

    Jfruh: I'm a bit confused by your comment, and it seems to me if people actually DID assume the compound was an artefact, they would not make the comparison to begin with. Furthermore, the assumption that more accurately can be said to be the source of this, in my opinion, is that only single hanzi can represent actual words in Chinese. I.e. they don't treat the word as "polecat" or "television", both of which are, despite initial intuition, very easily cut into their original components, but as "ice cream" or "book spine", which one would intuitively analyse them as "ice" + "cream" and "book" + "backbone".

  5. Oskar said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 5:03 am

    I agree that the crisis-danger-opportunity Chinese-character trope is very silly, but I don't think there's anything wrong with what Obama is doing. It's a perfectly acceptable (and non-silly) rhetorical device to go from crisis to opportunity, people do it all the time. It makes intuitive sense (as both ideas have to do with changing the status quo) and can be quite beautiful in the right writer's hand.

    Unless you bring up the Chinese thing. Then you're a moron.

  6. Marc said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 7:45 am

    The Chinese (and Japanese) word for "crisis" can be interpreted as meaning "danger(ous)" (危) and "opportunity" (機): 危機. Etymologically, the character 機 means "moment" or "occasion," but it is used in the word for opportunity (機会), so to the man on the street the interpretation "crisis = danger + opportunity" would be transparent.

    So if you mean that "etymologically" this interpretation is wrong, you might be right, but the fact remains that as the characters are now used, the interpretation makes complete sense. Even the seemingly conclusive refutation at does a lot of hemming and hawing, and maintains a completely etymological, originary approach, which, as I say, doesn't really matter to the Chinese man on the street. Whether or not the character for opportunity (機会) was created as a neologism to communicate the western concept of "opportunity" doesn't matter, because it's a fully-fledged Chinese word today.

    [(myl) Before explaining all this to us, you should read Victor Mair's discussion of these issues in the essay that Ben cited, or the further discussion in his other links. The fact that the character 機 is "used in [a] word for opportunity" is discussed there — is this any more significant than the fact (for example) that the same Latin morpheme is used in our words suggestion and digestion, allowing us to make the point that the English word for "proposal" (i.e. suggestion) is a combination of terms meaning beneath (sub-) and intestine (-gestion)? ]

  7. John Roth said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:50 am

    Rather than the linguistic trope, I suspect that Mr. Obama's statement has a quite different basis.

    Some years ago William Strauss and Neil Howe published a book named Generations, where they defined a cycle of four historical periods (High, Awakening, Unraveling and Crisis), driven by four generational types.

    Mr. Obama's statement could have been taken directly from the pages of the named book; it does not need any reference to the more general pep-talk of relating a crisis to an opportunity

    John Roth

  8. language hat said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 9:52 am

    I disagree with the entire premise of this post, which is that Obama was using the "Chinese" trope but removing the Chinese element. I'm quite sure people have been talking about periods of crisis as opportunities for change since long, long before the Chinese character became a fixture of Western cliche. You guys have done yeoman work on the cliche, but I'm afraid you're seeing it where it doesn't exist.

  9. Marc said,

    March 8, 2009 @ 4:42 pm

    I linked to that essay in my comment. 機 isn't a grammatical suffix like "-tion," so your counterexample misses the mark. 機 has a meaning, which any Chinese person would readily admit carries a strong connotation of "opportunity," since it's half of the Chinese word for "opportunity." Mair's entire argument is etymological, and I admit that, speaking on a strictly etymologically plane, 危機 does not mean "[danger+opportunity=]crisis" — but that's irrelevant. The point is how your ordinary literate Chinese person would view it. Obviously, they just treat it as a single lexical unit and don't think of this whole thing every time they see or use the word. But if the word is broken down as in this trope in some kind of business-motivation context, our hypothetical Chinese person would agree that danger+opportunity=crisis is indeed one way to look at it.

    Here is an article written by a Chinese person which proves my point:

    Quote: "In the Chinese language, the word "crisis" consists of two characters wei (danger) and ji (opportunity)."

    Now, I have a feeling we're going to go round and round on this, so let me repeat: etymologically, it doesn't mean that. My point is that the etymology doesn't matter, because danger+opportunity=crisis is indeed one way that the word can (un-etymologically) be analyzed, even by Chinese people.

  10. Randy Alexander said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 12:21 am

    Here is an essay I wrote in April 2007 exploring the etymology of 危機(危机), and popular Chinese notions of the semantic construction of the word. I didn't publish it at the time, but only sent it to Mark Liberman, Ben Zimmer, and Victor Mair.

    Here is it for all to enjoy:

  11. Randy Alexander said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 3:54 am

    I disagree with the entire premise of this post, which is that Obama was using the "Chinese" trope but removing the Chinese element.

    I believe you've misunderstood the premise of the post. It wasn't to say that Obama was using the "Chinese" trope but removing the Chinese element. The idea is that he might have done that, given its popularity among politicians, and may have even done his homework, removing the false etymology.

    I'm quite sure people have been talking about periods of crisis as opportunities for change since long, long before the Chinese character became a fixture of Western cliche.

    If you're quite sure, then why not provide even one small example?

    I don't think that anyone has said that the idea of looking on the bright side and seeing positive opportunities in times of crisis was imported from China by missionaries in the 1930s, and that such ideas didn't occur to westerners before that.

    The interest in this post is that now, a clear line of transmission of this idea has been drawn (by Zimmer, Liberman, Mair, and others) through politicians and other public speakers, and this line also has a clear beginning. But in the latest installment of the idea of a politician using what appears at first glance to be the same idea, there is no mention of Chinese. This post is not an answer; it's a question: did Obama correct a big linguistic mistake from the past, or is this just a crazy coincidence?

  12. hsknotes said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 4:51 am


    One, 机 kind of does function in chinese like a 'suffix'. See Mair's article for examples of that.

    Two, any chinese person thinks 机 carries a strong connotation of 'opportunity’? I'm not sold on that. Does 会 carry a strong connotation of opportunity by virtue of it being half of the word for 'opportunity’?

    Do we care or want to promote how chinese people 'un-etymologically' look at their language and come to conclusions? Would we want people doing that for english and spreading it world round. You'll find no shortage of chinese people with wonderful stories about word and character formation which are just 'folk etymologies.' That's fine if you have folk etymologies, but I guess it's best to also understand that they are nothing more than that, false etymologies that are cool, or carry some special meaning, but are coincidences. I think the point is you can do this in any language with any number of words, and that's why its important to have people come out and issue 'true' etymologies and corrections, or at least some people think that is important.

    Your ordinary man on the street in any country probably has lots of silly ideas about language, but do we care and or want to support these ideas? Do we at least want to say they are wrong or silly, if not try to correct them?

    Do you want people teaching that the origin of 'woman' is from womb + man? Maybe as a study tool it is helpful, and maybe 'man on the street' even thinks this way, but don't we want to make sure people remember that it is really a false etymology, or a learning trick, and not based on anything else?

  13. language hat said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 8:00 am

    in the latest installment of the idea of a politician using what appears at first glance to be the same idea, there is no mention of Chinese.

    It only "appears at first glance to be the same idea" if you've immersed yourself in the "Chinese character" trope.

    This post is not an answer; it's a question: did Obama correct a big linguistic mistake from the past, or is this just a crazy coincidence?

    I understand that; I also think it's an odd question. It's not "a crazy coincidence," it's just a different cliche. If you've spent years contemplating King Charles's head, I guess every royal head looks like King Charles's head, only without King Charles.

  14. John Swindle said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 2:11 pm

    危 by itself can mean "danger," and 机 by itself usually means "machine," often specifically "airplane," so the Chinese term for "crisis" means "dangerous airplane."

  15. Nathan Myers said,

    March 9, 2009 @ 6:55 pm

    Somebody give John Swindle an award. "Dangerplane™ is about to leave the terminal — get a seat and hang on!"

    We do this sort of lexical reasoning all the damn time in English, particularly in composing and analyzing trademarks. If you saw "risktunity™", you would know exactly what notion was being promoted even though "tunity" appears in a few other, less common words ("importunity"). So, it doesn't matter much whether 机 means anything by itself. In which other words does it appear? How common are they? How many other glyphs sound the same, and what words does that syllable mean?

  16. hsknotes said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 8:07 am


    You may have a point, but your example about 'risktunity' isn't really close to the situation with 危机。 Also, we 'get' 'risktunity', but maybe only because you added the 'risk' to make it clear which 'tunity' you are talking about. Furthermore, this is kind of a hack example because 'tunity' really isn't a proper 'ending', 'unity' or 'ity' is, the 't' just happens to be part of the root 'opportune' which you've left on.

    机 appears in tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands of words, it is one of the most commonly used characters in the language. The official dictionary of the chinese language gives it 9 different meanings. Thousands of characters sound very much like it if or are pronounced exactly the same. But, those aren't really the right questions to ask with chinese, or in at least in this case.

  17. Terry Collmann said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 12:26 pm

    I'm with Language Hat – it's a cliche of SWOT analysis that threats can be opportunities. I've heard that idea invoked plenty of times without anyone bringing China into the discussion, and I think it's entirely plausible that Obama's speechwriter used the "threat/crisis can be opportunity too" idea after picking it up from business school-style discussions rather than reading false stories about Chinese character.

  18. Nathan Myers said,

    March 10, 2009 @ 8:52 pm

    hsknotes: You seem to be saying that they were the right questions, but that the answers reveal the analogy is a bad one, a revelation I am happy to accept.

  19. Gordon Campbell said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 6:51 am

    "Crisis also means opportunity: President Hu"

  20. Benjamin Zimmer said,

    March 11, 2009 @ 7:53 am

    I don't know if Hu was making an explicit (or implicit) parallel to the hanzi trope, but his remarks were interpreted that way. From Reuters:

    President Hu Jintao said the global financial crisis meant opportunity to change its development pattern and "realize structural adjustment." The Chinese word for "crisis" is a combination of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity."
    "Challenge and opportunity always come together. Under certain conditions, one could be transformed into the other," Xinhua news agency quoted Hu as saying at a panel discussion with parliament deputies from Guangdong province in the south.

    And here's evidence that Obama's remarks were also understood to allude to the famous trope, from last Sunday's Chris Matthews Show:

    RICHARD STENGEL (Time Managing Editor): Look, their mantra is crisis equals opportunity, like the famous Chinese character.

  21. A-gu said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 4:59 am

    Americans aren't the only ones using this formulation:

  22. Brett said,

    March 12, 2009 @ 6:27 am

    The Prime Minister of Canada recently Sinicized it, but dehanzified it. He said, "As an ancient Chinese proverb puts it, 'a crisis is an opportunity riding a dangerous wind.'"

  23. Fluxor said,

    March 13, 2009 @ 2:59 pm

    Where does "riding a dangerous wind" come from?

  24. John said,

    May 16, 2009 @ 12:56 pm

    I guess I'm going to have to drop this from my conflict class. I picked up a Yunn Pann caligraphy which contains an additional character supposedly representing "middle" and bought right into the meaning attributed by Al Gore and others. One of my students "busted my chops" so even though the symbol appears in the text by Wilmot & Hocker, I guess it has to go.

  25. Bernard Wong said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 11:42 am

    I think academic types take this all far too seriously… The wisdom is that when everyone is running in one direction.. many times.. they are going the wrong way..

    Imagine a dinner party.. and you make a comment in English regarding a topic and punctuate it with 'but that is not my forte' pronouncing it correctly as fort.. NOT fortay… You will certainly garner some looks.. I know as I use this ploy, pronouncing words properly, as a conversational direction changer. Notwithstanding though, fortay it remains even to the educated, who so often also confuse mute for moot :O)

    Languages and culture are alive and change.. otherwise you get the Taliban.

    B Wong 黃天民

  26. Bernard Wong said,

    April 5, 2014 @ 11:47 am

    and to A-Gu's post.. Yes.. Chinese is so contextual.. it is easy for almost anything to be spun in translation…Speaking Chinese is not the same as thinking Chinese.. even in French it is the same.. Speaking French and thinking French are very different. As a native Quebec speaking French from a toddler age that very confidently. It is even vastly more pronounced wrt Chinese and Western languages.

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