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danger + opportunity ≠ crisis
May 6, 2010 11:23 AM   Subscribe

How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray. The explication of the Chinese word for crisis as made up of two components signifying danger and opportunity is due partly to wishful thinking, but mainly to a fundamental misunderstanding about how terms are formed in Mandarin and other Sinitic languages... Among the most egregious of the radical errors in this statement is the use of the exotic term “Ideogram” to refer to Chinese characters. Linguists and writing theorists avoid “ideogram” as a descriptive referent for hanzi (Mandarin) / kanji (Japanese) / hanja (Korean) because only an exceedingly small proportion of them actually convey ideas directly through their shapes...

There is a widespread public misperception, particularly among the New Age sector, that the Chinese word for “crisis” is composed of elements that signify “danger” and “opportunity.” A whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate statement. Another Sinologist, Victor Mair, writing in Language Log sez: As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.
posted by KokuRyu (83 comments total) 25 users marked this as a favorite

 
Also, frogs just jump all over the place and won't stay in your pan of water regardless of the temperature.
posted by GuyZero at 11:30 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


If you watch a pot of water on the burner, it does actually eventually boil.
posted by Pollomacho at 11:32 AM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Among the most egregious of the radical errors...

I see what they did there.
posted by DU at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2010 [17 favorites]


Yes yes yes.

Also, and this is a pet peeve I've aired here before, tones get way over-emphasized when people talk about Chinese. Yes, they're important. But context is much more important. Ma1 means mother and ma3 means horse, sure, but there's also mu4 which means wood and a different character with the exact same pronunciation mu4 which means eyes. Context tells the difference. Just as in English, context let's us know whether somebody means too/to/two, or their/they're, or read/red when speaking.

And that doesn't even bring into the fact that different Mandarin accents can completely change tones. And there's not way to tell tones in song, yet people are perfectly able to understand when a song is referencing moms or horses.

Tones do lead to great Mandarin puns though.
posted by kmz at 11:34 AM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


Well, the argument from etymology garnished with exotic Oriental flavor is irritating, but "potentially perilous" seems a trifle ... excessive.

Also, war profiteering/disaster capitalism/what have you isn't going to disappear now that Prof. Mair has informed us that this is muddled thinking.
posted by mayhap at 11:39 AM on May 6, 2010


Holy crap. I've been ranting about how terrible the Stephen Mitchell translation of the DDJ is for years without ever knowing that the man can't even read Chinese. I need to start practising my air-quotes around the word translation for the next time that particular subject comes up.
posted by 256 at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Just as in English, context let's us know whether somebody means too/to/two, or their/they're, or read/red when speaking.

Or let's/lets, even.
posted by Sys Rq at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


Yeah I remember when this first started floating around. Dude has a bug up his ass and is completely wrong in the worst kind of pedantic way. Complain all you want about a layman's misuse of the term "ideogram" -- the meat of this rant is the insistence that ji means 'incipient moment' instead of 'opportunity.' His entire thesis rests on emphasizing the optimistic connotation of 'opportunity' while ignoring the essentially identical denotation. This is folly.
posted by thesmophoron at 11:40 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.
Shit, that's my entire oeuvre in the bin, then :(
posted by Abiezer at 11:42 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Paging Ezra Pound. Ezra Pound to the white courtesy phone.
posted by aught at 11:42 AM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Oh, yeah? Bite the wax tadpole, buddy.
posted by Kinbote at 11:43 AM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


How would you be "led astray" by this? Does it really matter if that glyph "really means" danger + opportunity? The insight is still the same.

It's like when they test sayings on MythBusters. The saying "a rolling stone gathers no moss" does not mean that a rolling stone literally gathers no moss.
posted by DU at 11:45 AM on May 6, 2010


"Sun Zi's Art of War for the Board / Bed / Bath / Whichever Room"

Man. There have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of times in my life when Art of War for the Bathroom would have come in handy.
posted by evidenceofabsence at 11:46 AM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.

Fine, I wasn't asking for your approval an你好.
posted by Riki tiki at 11:47 AM on May 6, 2010 [7 favorites]


The problem, as I see it, isn't with the idea that "Well, a crisis is just danger plus opportunity!", it's with the Orientalist construction of Chinese wisdom that's implied in the Chinese character argument, which is part of a much larger exoticization problem that Western culture tends to have with most everything East of Russia.
posted by NoraReed at 11:49 AM on May 6, 2010 [4 favorites]


Ma1 means mother and ma3 means horse...

Did your mother scold the sick horse?
posted by Pollomacho at 11:51 AM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


There is a widespread public misperception

[Citation needed].
posted by polymodus at 11:54 AM on May 6, 2010


There have been hundreds, possibly thousands, of times in my life when Art of War for the Bathroom would have come in handy.

All bathroom behavior is based on deception.
posted by jquinby at 11:56 AM on May 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Or let's/lets, even.

Ai ya.
posted by kmz at 11:58 AM on May 6, 2010


This does seem like it weirdly conflates the value of the 'proverb' with the accuracy of the etymology.

It's like saying "It's not true that when I 'assume' I make an ass out of u and me - because that's not how to spell 'you'!"
posted by yarrow at 11:58 AM on May 6, 2010 [6 favorites]


Tones do lead to great Mandarin puns though

I should have been more careful when I asked my friend if I could take his horse for a ride.

And I should have continued to be careful when describing how many times she tried to throw me off.
posted by kurumi at 12:02 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


How many shitty tattoos have been spawned by this misconception?

I dunno, probably some huge number.
posted by Mister_A at 12:03 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


This does seem like it weirdly conflates the value of the 'proverb' with the accuracy of the etymology.

Yeah, but the whole "the Chinese characters danger + opportunity = crisis" thing is just not true, which is irritating. Also the whole "Chinese characters are ideograms" is not exactly true, either (it's not how readers perceive or comprehend meaning), which is also kind of irritating. It's also wrapped up in Orientalism, which is also kind of irritating.
posted by KokuRyu at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


I started disregarding the 'obvious' meanings of compound words in English the first time I tried eating a grapefruit. Is there any fruit you can imagine that is LESS like a grape? So the fact that the same thing applies in other languages surprises me NOT.
posted by oneswellfoop at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


My mother-in-law is from mainland China, and she had a hard time remembering the Mellon in Carnegie Mellon (where I work). My wife and I started calling it "Carnegie gua" (), where gua means "melon". It's worked surprisingly pretty well for her and the rest of our family. People who know English and Chinese also get a good chuckle out of our unholy Chinglish creation.
posted by jasonhong at 12:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [5 favorites]


Shit, that's my entire oeuvre in the bin, then :(

At least you don't go running around with a business card that says 'Sinologist' on it. And I should know: I'm an Abiezerologist, and as such my word carries far greater weight than yours.
posted by Valet at 12:06 PM on May 6, 2010


Crisitunity!
posted by Biru at 12:11 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm an Abiezerologist, and as such my word carries far greater weight than yours.
You'll never confine my vital creative forces in the dusty corridors of academe! Just like my vital manly essences will never be lost through base fornication - let me tell you a fascinating story related to that about the time I met a Taoist mystic who could ... no, come back...
posted by Abiezer at 12:14 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


I'm not sure that I completely buy his argument. He does seem to be unduly emphasizing the optimistic connotation of 'opportunity', while it seems to me that “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)" could be thought of as analogous to a tipping point or possibly even a systempunkt in time, a moment when small actions may bring large changes, positive or not. The word "opportunity" applied to such things isn't so far off the mark.
posted by adamdschneider at 12:15 PM on May 6, 2010


...vital manly essences will never be lost through base...

(winces, ditches his advisor, switches to languagehatology)
posted by Valet at 12:20 PM on May 6, 2010


Sinologist? What ever happened to a good old fashioned semiotician?
posted by whimsicalnymph at 12:21 PM on May 6, 2010


My wife got really tired of me after a year in Beijing* making up jokey terms out of false-homophones. As my vocabulary was so very limited, I actually found this very helpful to remember things. As an example, the district of Beijing where the US Embassy is located is the Chaoyang district (朝阳区), which I refered to as the "fried lamb" district.

*I could have just stopped the sentence there.
posted by Pollomacho at 12:23 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


Sinologist? What ever happened to a good old fashioned semiotician?

Sinologists don't study signs. (Or trigonometric functions, or vices.)
posted by kmz at 12:24 PM on May 6, 2010 [3 favorites]


Victor Mair is a bit of a hero when all's said and done though - his Sino-Platonic Papers site is a treasure-house of wonderful gems (plus a few rough diamonds and even the odd bit of paste, of course).
posted by Abiezer at 12:27 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Rumors persist that Eskimos have less than 200 words for snow.
posted by kuujjuarapik at 12:28 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


The Chinese character I constantly misinterpret is my wife.

hi honey
posted by mattdidthat at 12:29 PM on May 6, 2010 [14 favorites]


a grapefruit. Is there any fruit you can imagine that is LESS like a grape?

A banana?

It's also wrapped up in Orientalism

True, but the way to defeat Orientalism is not thru Etymology.
posted by abc123xyzinfinity at 12:32 PM on May 6, 2010


True, but the way to defeat Orientalism is not thru Etymology.

Haven't we always been at war with Eastasia?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:41 PM on May 6, 2010


True, but the way to defeat Orientalism is not thru Etymology.

Is it through song? Please let it be through song.
posted by 256 at 1:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [14 favorites]


The jī of wēijī, in fact, means something like “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes).” Thus, a wēijī is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry.

So far so good, but then the author participates in the very sort of inexact, careless, non-philological and over-determined reading that he claims to want to disparage:

A wēijī indicates a perilous situation when one should be especially wary. It is not a juncture when one goes looking for advantages and benefits. In a crisis, one wants above all to save one's skin and neck! Any would-be guru who advocates opportunism in the face of crisis should be run out of town on a rail, for his / her advice will only compound the danger of the crisis.

It seems the temptation to "wax philosophical" (to borrow the very phrase he uses) cannot be resisted, and what follows it is even less promising:

the graph for jī by itself [also] indicates “quick-witted(ness); resourceful(ness)” and “machine; device.” In combination with other graphs, however, jī can acquire hundreds of secondary meanings. It is absolutely crucial to observe that jī possesses these secondary meanings only in the multisyllabic terms into which it enters. To be specific in the matter under investigation, jī added to huì (“occasion”) creates the Mandarin word for “opportunity” (jīhuì), but by itself jī does not mean “opportunity.” A wēijī in Chinese is every bit as fearsome as a crisis in English. A jīhuì in Chinese is just as welcome as an opportunity to most folks in America. To confuse a wēijī with a jīhuì is as foolish as to insist that a crisis is the best time to go looking for benefits.

Now it is quite curious that the very argument against misreading misreads how "opportunity" is actually used in everyday English: "opportunity" is connotatively neutral regarding whether or not "a crisis is the best time to go looking for benefits." Strangely, the commentator seems to think "opportunity" refers only to individuals and not to groups: i.e., that it means "exploiting a situation to one's benefit," when there is also the concept of collective opportunity. Furthermore, the concept "from crisis comes opportunity" means the opportunity to do both bad and good. The author seems to believe "opportunity" is always suggestive of an individual taking advantage of a situation to his or her benefit, but there is also the notion of a group taking a collective opportunity.
posted by HP LaserJet P10006 at 1:08 PM on May 6, 2010


I'm really glad you posted this, very interesting stuff. My Japanese language teacher was a Polish lady who used to point out sometimes how the characters resembled the things they were describing (she may have been doing this to help us remember rather than explaining their origin). I felt like I was one of those people who couldn't get those "magic eye" images to work.
posted by Kirk Grim at 1:09 PM on May 6, 2010


Bite the wax philosopher, then.
posted by Kirth Gerson at 1:10 PM on May 6, 2010 [2 favorites]


A couple of weeks ago I went to a dinner at a Chinese university. One of the speakers began his speech with, "As you know, in Chinese the word for crisis comes from danger and opportunity," and I did not hear the rest of the speech because I was so confused - in the past, I had been told that this was untrue, but if it was untrue, why would the (Chinese) speaker have started his speech that way? Anyway, I later found out that it was from one of the sample speeches in a business English book.
posted by betweenthebars at 1:10 PM on May 6, 2010 [8 favorites]


My biggest problem with this guy's argument is that it begs the question . . .

*ducks*
posted by gompa at 1:28 PM on May 6, 2010


I'm really glad you posted this, very interesting stuff. My Japanese language teacher was a Polish lady who used to point out sometimes how the characters resembled the things they were describing (she may have been doing this to help us remember rather than explaining their origin). I felt like I was one of those people who couldn't get those "magic eye" images to work.

Yeah, I'm the same way. I suppose this mnemonic trick works for some learning styles, but it didn't work for me. I just focused on learning to recognize radicals and other elements, without paying too much attention to what they resembled.
posted by KokuRyu at 1:36 PM on May 6, 2010


Is this a good time to mention Inupiak words for 'snow'?
posted by lodurr at 1:50 PM on May 6, 2010


Why 'Sinologist'? Do we describe people that study other countries besides China that way?
posted by empath at 1:53 PM on May 6, 2010


Because Sino- comes from the late Latin word for China, which ultimately shares a root with "China"; both are thought to come from the Ch'in dynasty.
posted by klangklangston at 2:02 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah I remember when this first started floating around. Dude has a bug up his ass and is completely wrong in the worst kind of pedantic way. Complain all you want about a layman's misuse of the term "ideogram" -- the meat of this rant is the insistence that ji means 'incipient moment' instead of 'opportunity.' His entire thesis rests on emphasizing the optimistic connotation of 'opportunity' while ignoring the essentially identical denotation. This is folly.
What are you talking about? I think it's pretty obvious that you're wrong. His argument is very clear. Saying that 'ji' means "opportunity" in Chinese would be like saying the "ic" in "catastrophic" means "growth" because it's also the ending of "hydroponic"
How would you be "led astray" by this? Does it really matter if that glyph "really means" danger + opportunity? The insight is still the same.
The people hawking this are generally giving advice on something, and you would be foolish to take advice from someone stupid enough buy into this nonsense. (Like Condi Rice, for example)
I'm not sure that I completely buy his argument. He does seem to be unduly emphasizing the optimistic connotation of 'opportunity', while it seems to me that “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)" could be thought of as analogous to a tipping point or possibly even a systempunkt in time, a moment when small actions may bring large changes, positive or not. The word "opportunity" applied to such things isn't so far off the mark.
"Opportunity" and "turning point" do not have the same meaning. In fact, the article points out that there's an old English word that does mean that: nothing other then crisis which gradually acquired it's negative meaning.

I'm surprised by the number of people defending this general idiocy in this thread. I mean, it's wrong. And here we have a bunch of people saying, "Who cares if it's wrong, only pencil necked geeks care about crap like that. It's still interesting!"

WTF?
a grapefruit. Is there any fruit you can imagine that is LESS like a grape?
A banana?
A Jalapeño pepper.
posted by delmoi at 2:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


I'm not sure that I completely buy his argument. He does seem to be unduly emphasizing the optimistic connotation of 'opportunity', while it seems to me that “incipient moment; crucial point (when something begins or changes)" could be thought of as analogous to a tipping point or possibly even a systempunkt in time, a moment when small actions may bring large changes, positive or not. The word "opportunity" applied to such things isn't so far off the mark.

I prefer to argue that the "incipient moment" could be considered limnos, or threshold --> a liminal space, where what was is over yet what will be is not yet, thus ripe with creative fomentation of [opportunity, innovation, novelty, unknown, etc]

viz.,
At the heart of this experience is the social-psychological construct of "liminality." From the Greek limnos, meaning "threshold," liminality describes an in-between time when what was, is no longer, and what will be, is not yet. It is a time rich with ambiguity, uncertainty, and the possibility of creative fomentation.
posted by infini at 2:09 PM on May 6, 2010


Why 'Sinologist'? Do we describe people that study other countries besides China that way?

Like "Japanologist", it's pretty much an outdated term, leftover from the previous (Boomer and pre-Boomer) generation of China scholars. In many ways the study of China and Japan was considered to be a monumental task, almost an uncracked code, but that's all changed in the last 25 or 30 years with more and more people studying Northeast Asia.

I remember meeting a German Masters student in Japan back in the 90s who described himself as a "Japanologist", which sounded pretty weird.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:23 PM on May 6, 2010


While we are on the subject could somebody explain to me whether or not the Chinese word for war is the same as "two women under one roof"?
posted by bukvich at 2:29 PM on May 6, 2010


The people hawking this are generally giving advice on something, and you would be foolish to take advice from someone stupid enough buy into this nonsense.

Right, but that would be true regardless of whether the just-so story about the Chinese characters were accurate. It was just weird that this guy started giving his own advice about whether to see crises as opportunities based on his own reading of the semantics of the characters. It seemed to me that he wasn't really rejecting the Orientalism of thinking that Chinese characters have a special wisdom to impart, he was just annoyed that people were parsing this particular word wrong.
posted by yarrow at 2:32 PM on May 6, 2010


I didn't get that at all. The writer in the first link explains that many hanzi characters are actually simplified from traditional characters. They don't have any wisdom to impart at all.
posted by KokuRyu at 2:56 PM on May 6, 2010


The only reason people mix stuff like this up is because they only use ten percent of their brain. If, like the Amazons who cut off one breast to better shoot a bow, they removed all extraneous assumptions from their thoughts, they would see that this is incorrect. But, no, they bury their heads in the sand like ostriches and walk off the cliffs of reason like lemmings. What people need to do in situations like this is pull back from the scene and, like the astronauts who see the Great Wall of China from space, they'll see only the really big, important facts.

Luckily, reason is to misconception as coffee is to drunkenness: it washes it away and leaves one alert and informed. Even if, like Columbus, you set off on your voyage of learning not knowing whether the earth is flat or round, you will eventually reach your destination as sure as glass windowpanes will eventually flow into puddles. The important lesson here is to question your assumptions! Looking at the world in a new way is how Abner Doubleday invented baseball, Henry Ford invented assembly lines, and Thomas Edison invented the light bulb.

In short, it's very important that we respect our Chinese friends and not spread falsehoods about their language. After all, if they all decided to jump in the air at once, they could knock the Earth out of orbit.
posted by lore at 3:13 PM on May 6, 2010 [43 favorites]


Because Sino- comes from the late Latin word for China,

I knew that, but you don't hear about Anglologists or Frenchologists.
posted by empath at 3:18 PM on May 6, 2010


Pollomacho: "If you watch a pot of water on the burner, it does actually eventually boil."

And a penny saved is a waste of time which flies like a banana.

::bow::

::flourish::

::exit::
posted by Splunge at 3:19 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Your mom is a horse! vs. Your horse is a mom!

Very different! In any language!
posted by WalterMitty at 3:22 PM on May 6, 2010


KokuRyu, these were the passages that led me to that:
If one wishes to wax philosophical about the jī of wēijī, one might elaborate upon it as the dynamic of a situation's unfolding, when many elements are at play. In this sense, jī is neutral. This jī can either turn out for better or for worse, but — when coupled with wēi — the possibility of a highly undesirable outcome (whether in life, disease, finance, or war) is uppermost in the mind of the person who invokes this potent term...

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.
But I don't mean to sound so negative, it was an interesting article and I'm glad to have seen it, so thanks!
posted by yarrow at 3:26 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, I can see your point now.
posted by KokuRyu at 3:38 PM on May 6, 2010


Shorter: crisis = danger + opportunity crucial moment. FTFY and go fuck yourselves. morons!
posted by fleacircus at 3:50 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


DU: "How would you be "led astray" by this? Does it really matter if that glyph "really means" danger + opportunity? The insight is still the same.

It's like when they test sayings on MythBusters. The saying "a rolling stone gathers no moss" does not mean that a rolling stone literally gathers no moss.
"

I think it's more the unthinking cultural approriation that's the problem, more than anything.
posted by ShawnStruck at 4:09 PM on May 6, 2010


While we are on the subject could somebody explain to me whether or not the Chinese word for war is the same as "two women under one roof"?

No.
posted by zompist at 4:15 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


The idea of seeing opportunity in danger seems very familiar (and American) to me. I'm glad read this because I'd rather think that the Chinese have their own ideas about things. I'm disappointed that they seem to have only one word for 'crisis' though.
posted by wobh at 4:33 PM on May 6, 2010


Also, betweenthebars' story raises an interesting question for me: what would the Chinese speaker have to misunderstand about English for that to seem reasonable to him?
posted by wobh at 4:43 PM on May 6, 2010


I knew that, but you don't hear about Anglologists or Frenchologists.

I wonder if the Chinese/japanese/etc have a word for people who study the west.
posted by delmoi at 5:21 PM on May 6, 2010


teenagers
posted by GuyZero at 5:39 PM on May 6, 2010


I guess this means I'm just in crisis. Darn.
posted by anshuman at 5:50 PM on May 6, 2010


Mister_A: "How many shitty tattoos have been spawned by this misconception?

I dunno, probably some huge number.
"

Oh, some huge number indeed.
posted by bwg at 5:53 PM on May 6, 2010


Those tattoos made me think of Searle's Chinese Room.
posted by wobh at 6:06 PM on May 6, 2010


As a Sinologist, one thing that really annoys me is when someone sanctimoniously invokes phony Orientalism to embellish their speech or writing.

Kabuki alert
It's time to retire kabuki
Don't call it kabuki
Languagehat on kabuki
posted by armage at 6:24 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


no hanzismatter link or did i just miss it?
posted by hamida2242 at 7:04 PM on May 6, 2010


Yeah but in China, they believe the English word "crisis" is composed of two words also: "crisis = cry + sis = crybabies and sissies"

So if we retreat from "crisis = danger + opportunity", we lose.
posted by storybored at 7:30 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


...vital manly essences will never be lost through base...

Hey, I've seen your forehead. You're no Taoist.
posted by bokane at 9:40 PM on May 6, 2010


...which is part of a much larger exoticization problem that Western culture tends to have with most everything East of Russia.

Alaska has an exoticization problem?
posted by Evilspork at 10:05 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


Alaska has an exoticization problem?

You betcha!
posted by lumensimus at 10:52 PM on May 6, 2010 [1 favorite]


hamida2242: "no hanzismatter link or did i just miss it?"

Yes.
posted by bwg at 2:26 AM on May 7, 2010


This reminds me of a long time ago when, as a student, I spent some time in Shanghai and stayed at a hotel with shared room. There was a tall British dude, a Japanese fellow and some other guys. The Japanese guy and I explained the concept of kanjis to the British dude, who was fascinated by it. For some reason that I don't recall, we used this very word, 危機 (kiki in Japanese) to explain how many words are made up of two characters, each character can have its own meaning, yadda yadda. The British guy soaked it all up and was so fascinated by it all that at the next opportunity, he tried to strike up a conversation on his own about this topic with the (female) Chinese hotel manager. But not very successfully, and he reported back to us that the hotel manager reacted with some, um, distress. Which is perhaps not so surprising considering that there was this big scary foreigner waving a piece of paper in front of her on which only the words CRISIS CRISIS were written.
posted by sour cream at 5:15 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


Also, and this is a pet peeve I've aired here before, tones get way over-emphasized when people talk about Chinese. Yes, they're important. But context is much more important. Ma1 means mother and ma3 means horse, sure, but there's also mu4 which means wood and a different character with the exact same pronunciation mu4 which means eyes. Context tells the difference. Just as in English, context let's us know whether somebody means too/to/two, or their/they're, or read/red when speaking.

This is pretty much completely wrong. Tones are an essential part of pronouncing a Chinese word. The existence of homophones doesn't change this.
posted by afu at 7:02 AM on May 7, 2010


That hanzismatter site is interesting, but I find it odd that one of the authors (Tian, apparently) seems to consistently omitted necessary English articles:

>The button for Japanese [日本語] is missing first character.
>Alan, myself and several readers have noticed this error when trying to access comment function of older postings.

Something something glass houses.
posted by kcds at 8:04 AM on May 7, 2010


> consistently omitted necessary English articles:

Oh, crap.
posted by kcds at 8:05 AM on May 7, 2010 [2 favorites]


This is pretty much completely wrong. Tones are an essential part of pronouncing a Chinese word. The existence of homophones doesn't change this.

Yes, tones are obviously an intrinsic part of Mandarin pronunciation. (I'm going to specifically talk about Mandarin because I don't speak any other dialects but I suspect it's similar for most of the other major ones.) My point was that whenever non-Mandarin speakers talk about speaking Mandarin, the possible confusion between tones is over-emphasized considering the existence of complete homophones. If you get the non-tone part right, you're 90% of the way there.

Again, people somehow manage to understand song lyrics despite the absence of correct tones when singing. And somebody from, say, Gansu isn't going to speak with the same tones as Putonghua. Yet people from Gansu and Beijing are magically able to understand each other (for the most part, at least).

Xia mi men, tu zi men, zhu yi ba! Wo men de liang shi gou chi le! (Ok, combination of tone and other pronunciation differences present there.)
posted by kmz at 8:33 AM on May 7, 2010


Ma1 means mother and ma3 means horse...

Did your mother scold the sick horse?


Maybe she scolded the numb horse.
posted by Poagao at 2:45 AM on May 10, 2010


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