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I Am SO Happy to Learn This

Yesterday, in my long post on "The Death of Environmentalism," I mentioned that the cover of the report features the predictable aphorism that "the Chinese character for Crisis equals Danger + Opportunity."

I can't stand that phrase. If someone ever needs to torture me into confessing to just about anything, all you have to do is tie me down and repeat that to me for an hour. I'll crack. I think it's because I associate it with two of the most vapid people I've ever known, both of whom would repeat it predictably in any meeting as if it was a profound insight personally discovered by them through their deep immersion in the inscrutable Orient.

And just last night I was walking home, and I started thinking, "I wonder if it's even true. I bet it's not even true..." I was thinking of posting the question, seeing if any of the many Decembrist readers who happen to be fluent in written Mandarin could help.

Then today I was directed to the blog at Grist Magazine, http://grist.org/gristmill, and in the middle of a lengthy discussion of "The Death of Environmentalism," there it was, in a comment: "you are repeating myths, not facts, about Chinese characters. First, Chinese characters do not represent an ideographic writing system. Second, "crisis" does not equal "danger" + "opportunity"."

The user links to this article, which seems authoritative enough. The author has me cheering:

A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation. A casual search of the Web turns up more than a million references to this spurious proverb. It appears, often complete with Chinese characters, on the covers of books, on advertisements for seminars, on expensive courses for "thinking outside of the box," and practically everywhere one turns in the world of quick-buck business, pop psychology, and orientalist hocus-pocus.

The author actually goes even further than I would:

Those who purvey the doctrine that the Chinese word for "crisis" is composed of elements meaning "danger" and "opportunity" are engaging in a type of muddled thinking that is a danger to society, for it lulls people into welcoming crises as unstable situations from which they can benefit. Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution.

"A danger to society"? I'm not sure about that. It's certainly no worse than Crossfire. But it is annoying. And I'm really glad to know that it's not even true. Please use this knowledge to stop this awful phrase whenever possible.

Posted by Mark Schmitt on February 11, 2005 | Permalink


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Mark, a technical blogging point:
I've been told that Google ranks items such as blog posts more highly by title than by content. So, if you want people doing Google searches and such to turn up this post, and thereby learn the truth and then join the campaign to extirpate this bit of spurious Orientalism, you would be well advised to re-title this post with some or all of the offending phrase - thus, people searching for it would be more likely to be directed to your debunking.
Sorry to make you repeat what you don't like. But war is never pretty.

Posted by: The Navigator | Feb 11, 2005 5:27:08 PM

In fact, it's well known that the Chinese character for "Crisis" is a combination of the characters for "Round up the usual suspects" and "Octogenarian succession."

Posted by: Kieran Healy | Feb 11, 2005 7:18:51 PM

FWIW, the author's attempted parallel illustration using the English word "airplane" seems equally erroneous (though I'm not sure it has the same potential to lead us all into disaster). See http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?term=plane

Posted by: RonK, Seattle | Feb 11, 2005 10:29:10 PM

We can lose "thinking outside the box" as well, and not a moment too soon for my taste.

Posted by: John | Feb 12, 2005 7:41:05 PM

I love this shit. All those years of fatuous fearless leaders quoting unmitigated crapola. It always seemed way too pat. Debunk is my favorite word.

Posted by: leolabeth | Feb 17, 2005 2:22:44 PM

I worked with a guy who had those motivational posters all over his cube. He was a mousy little guy and his superiors would dump all the dog-work, no-glory jobs on him. And he'd take them, putting in endless hours. He confessed to me once that his marriage was in trouble because of his overwork. He was actually a reasonable programmer, he just couldn't see past the jargon-y BS about the glories of hard work.

One of my fave New Yorker cartoons: Two fish in a fish tank, eying the pile of fish skeletons next to the tank. One says "It's time we rethink this whole thinking-outside-the-box thing."

Posted by: Maureen Hay | Feb 23, 2005 4:45:37 PM

As long as people are referring to overused trite phrases - I nominate "let's not reinvent the wheel."

To see why I object - consider the prospect of landing a 747 airliner on Conestoga wagon wheels - or riding a bicycle outfitted with steam locomotive drive wheels - or ...

Posted by: Don Dresser | Feb 24, 2005 12:29:06 PM

That "crisis = danger + opportunity" schtick is a pet peeve of mine too. We had a bit of a discussion on this topic in the comments to this apostropher post.

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