Interesting times: Chinese curse, crisis, or opportunity?

Chinese character for DangerChina has come a long way in twenty-five years: the former Communist stronghold that was barely able to feed itself is now a contender for senior partnership in America’s business of empire.

Some of the cultural fallout naturally includes an increased awareness here of things Chinese, from Sun Tzu as the spirit-guide for investment bankers to pithy political pearls not yet consigned to the fortune cookie.

One of my favorites is the proverb “May you live in interesting times.” Invariably, it’s quoted as being a curse, which adds its own measure of paradoxical-Chinese-inscrutable-zen-profundity type of cachet to the mix. And it has its effect — I personally find the saying to be a very resonant cautionary tale.

The only problem is, it’s not Chinese. Apparently, the line has its origins in an obscure 1950’s science fiction story, picking up its supposed Chinese provenance somewhere along the way until it became popularized by Robert F. Kennedy in a 1966 speech. We can thank the BBC and several China scholars for this… interesting research.

Also filed under “political parables,” comma, “ancient Chinese wisdom,” is the oft-quoted bit about the Chinese character for “crisis” — you know, the one they tell us is a combination of “danger” and “opportunity.”

This apparently was another tale that got bent in the re-telling, although maybe not as badly as the “curse of interesting times.” Professor of Chinese language Victor H. Mair tells us:

I first encountered this… sitting next to an American executive. He was intently studying a bound volume that had adopted this notorious formulation as the basic premise of its method for making increased profits even when the market is falling.

The good professor goes on to explain that the Mandarin word for “crisis” (wēijī) actually consists of two characters: the first one does in fact denote “danger,” but the second has nothing to do with “opportunity.” Rather, it’s more like “crucial point.”

How it came to be a watchword for the boardroom Art of War crowd is open to speculation, but it seems that wishful semi-literacy in Chinese is somewhere at the bottom of it. Professor Mair’s account is a wonderful stew of scholarship, impatience and pure snark. Highly recommended.

Next on this week’s reading list: The Tao of Pooh.

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