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During a campaign speech in 1959, JFK was one of the first westerners to say in public: “in the chinese language, the word ‘crisis’ is composed of two characters, one representing danger and the other, ‘opportunity’”. This throw-away comment is used so often these days, particularly in recent weeks during this Covid crisis (it was even mentioned by one of the speakers to kick off his presentation at a conference I attended last weekend) that I thought I should mention (with regret) that this isn’t actually quite right.

It’s true that the chinese word for ‘crisis’ (危机, pronounced wēijī) means ‘hidden danger, disaster or crisis’. The first character wēi (危) does indeed mean ‘dangerous’ or ‘precarious’, but the second character jī (机) does not mean ‘opportunity’ in isolation, but something more along the lines of ‘time of change’. The misinterpretation arises from the fact that the character for jī (机) is included in the Chinese word for “opportunity”, jīhuì (机会).

I’m sorry if this comes as a disappointment because JFK’s interpretation is better and more compelling, and has become a motivational tool for westerners to see times of crisis (like the one we’re in now) as a great opportunity. But, as a reader of China Bites, I thought you should know the actual facts!

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