Tuesday, January 29, 2008

"Crisis" in Painkiller Jane

Glenn sent a video clip from Sci-Fi's Painkiller Jane to me.


In this scene, Tate Donovan's character has written down the character on a piece of paper, then proceeds to claim it is , "crisis".
"Here, it is Chinese. Wei ji. The top part is danger & bottom is opportunity. Two characters, one word "crisis"..."
Many non-Chinese speakers have used this misleading "danger+opportunity=crisis" reference in their speech, including Condoleezza Rice. My good friend Mark Swofford at Pinyin.info has posted an essay by Victor H. Mair about this misperception.


  1. It's bad enough that they're perpetuating this stupidity of 機="opportunity" and the idea of that actually being the etymology of 危機, but couldn't they at least have Googled the correct hanzi? Seriously, it would have taken five minutes.

  2. Some Turkish newspaper columnist (famous for taking sides with the ruling party after each election, this can give you an idea on his character) also mentioned this thing as: "The word 'kiki', which means crisis in Japanese also means opportunity. This can mean that after each crisis, new opportunities arise etc." (it was something like this). As I went through my electronic 広辞苑 dictionary there were 20 words read as きき (kiki), each with different characters and different meanings.

  3. Ulas wrote:

    I went through my electronic 広辞苑 dictionary there were 20 words read as きき (kiki)

    I am quite sure he meant 危機, which is read kiki in Japanese and means "crisis" the same as in Chinese.

    That much is correct, but the bogus analysis applies just as much to Japanese as to Chinese.


  4. I've never understood what these people are trying to say anyway. If there's a crisis, then there's danger... and an opportunity? An opportunity to do what? Take advantage of the crisis victims in their hour of need? Is the lesson to be learned here that during the crisis of Hurricane Katarina, there was danger but also the opportunity to buy hundreds of acres of prime New Orleans real estate at rock-bottom prices, as soon as it's pumped out? Is that the lesson we're supposed to be learning from this?

  5. Well, Alan....I actually wrote less than I actually would. I commented like....somewhere between midnight and early morning, with a brain like bath sponge, almost dozing off. I must have thought that I finished the sentence (or thought that was enough) I also know what he meant with "Kiki" but this was not about danger+opportunity=crisis logic, he actually told that the word for crisis meant opportunity at the same time, and that time I made that little research, wondering how many きき are there to be mistaken. That guy did not even knew about characters thing. Besides for "crisis" he meant an economic crisis, which is more of a 不況 (fu kyoo) in Japanese, an occurence happening all the time in my good old Turkey, probably he was kind of buttering up the government or those bussinessmen friends of him. Don't expect those guys to be in that linguistic knowledge can we?

    @ravenswood: very wisely put!

  6. It's interesting to watch the evolution of legends and myths.

    A couple of months back, I went to a lecture about Chinese/Japanese calligraphy. The master calligrapher studied 8 years in Japan, and to my inexperienced eyes, seemed to have proper technique. She and her apprentice gave a historical background of Chinese characters, and then she started talking about the meaning of characters.

    I knew she was bullshitting us as soon as she claimed that every character has meaning based on its elements. I study Japanese. I was really itching to ask her what the meaning of the character for "cat" (猫) is - because there is really no connection between a seedling and a cat, and since she knew Japanese, not Chinese, the pronunciation issue would not be obvious.

    Anyway, she also had a version of the story about disaster and opportunity, only she attributed it to the Kanji "災". That character is very convenient for her theory, because the combination of elements makes sense. So she didn't say it was made of "danger" and "opportunity", just that it had the secondary meaning of "opportunity". I didn't have enough knowledge to recognize that this was another form of bullshit.

    So thanks for mentioning this myth. It's probably the origin for her story, though changed with tellers and time.

  7. eyedunno wrote:
    couldn't they at least have Googled the correct hannzi?
    Maybe that's just what they did!

    Check out this page!

    It has the exact same character 易 incorrectly labeled wei ji. I can't believe the producers of that TV show would believe that stupid page.

    Moral of the story: don't believe everything you Google. ;-)


  8. "I was really itching to ask her what the meaning of the character for "cat" (猫) is"

    That's fairly easy. The radical is the "beast" radical. That ought to be self-explanatory. 苗 stands for the pronunciation "byou" (in Japanese) and also stands for "slenderness" (like a seedling) in this case. There's your answer, and I'm not bullshitting you. :P

    災 is the same deal. The top part originally had a horizontal line through it and meant a dam over a river. That's the phonetic, but it also carries the semantic sense of something that creates an obstruction to daily life. The bottom part should be self-explanatory. :)

    Kanjigen FTW!

    "Moral of the story: don't believe everything you Google. ;-)"

    Indeed. I assumed some competence on the part of the film research team to separate Google's wheat from its chaff. Now I realize their research team may as well have been comprised of trained monkeys.

    Oh, but that site apparently traced your link and took down the image. I had to use archive.org to see it. Too bad the mistake goes beyond that one image and actually forms the basis for the whole site.

  9. eyedunno - I'm not exactly sure whether you're agreeing with me or telling me off.

    To the best of my knowledge, that character (cat), being Chinese in origin, is made out of the "beast" radical as you said, and the sound for "miao" (miao2 in mandarin, sorry, tones are beyond me), which is represented by the character for "seedling". If the teacher had said that it represents "byou", she would have been wrong, because the character was not invented in Japan. As for the interpretation of "seedling" as "slender", that's nice, but not the true etymology of the character, is it? Again, I'm not a Chinese expert, but to my knowledge, 猫 is a classic example of the secondary element being selected for its sound alone.

  10. I'm neither "telling you off" nor "agreeing with you"; I'm simply giving you the etymology as given in the kanjigen. Well, and the last half of my post was responding to Alan's discovery.

    Of course it's not "byou" in Chinese, but that's the Sino-Japanese reading, meaning that it's derived from the Chinese, and is thus useful for the same purposes to one such as I who knows practically zero Chinese.

    Oh, but looking again at kanjigen, it does give the "miao" story as an alternate possible etymology. However, the character is listed as 会意兼形声 , which would make it a compound-idiograph-slash-semasio-phonetic character.

    As for the "slender" thing, it's a derived meaning of 苗 . From kanjigen:
    Rough translation:
    1 (n.) Seedling. A thin rice plant that hasn't yet grown tall. Also, of plants in general, one that has just sprouted. By extension, a metaphor for very thin things.

    The "thin" meaning is referenced in the 猫 entry as well (though obviously either way you look at it, pronunciation took priority, as with most kanji).

  11. by the way, the phonetic element is also similar with the voice of a cat, isn't it? Perhaps if the character was invented in Japan, it could have been read as "NYA", who knows....

    I had once read a story about an old Chinese man, whom claimed that he had a cat which could talk. After the cat was run over by a car and the driver paid the cat's owner, the crowd asked if the cat could really talk, he said the cat could say the word "cat" The story ended with the phrase: "Everybody laughed. What's the word for cat in Chinese....it's MIAW"

    As of Mandarin Chinese I know of, says that the character is read MAO or MIAO, this MIAW reading could be Cantonese, but I'm not sure either.

  12. The Chinese reading of the character for cat (猫) is similar to but not exactly the same as the reading of the character for the cat's meow (喵).

    The characters and their readings are:
    猫 māo
    喵 miāo

    I think Japanese cats are more likely to say nyan rather than nya.

    So should the Japanese reading of the character 喵 be nyan? Who knows?


  13. Wow.

    I looked up 喵 in Morohashi's 大漢和辞典 at work, but it just confirmed what the Unihan database already suggested - there's no on- or kun-yomi for this one. :P

    Is it too late for new kanji to be borrowed into Japanese? I think that would be a fun one to use. "Nyanko" in kanji would be kinda neat as 喵子, but just forget about 御喵子倶楽部.

  14. "Yes! Crisitunity!"

    -- Homer Simpson