Monday, August 21, 2006

Sinologist disses Rice

I came across this wrong headed article about the misuse of Chinese when making a point. I drafted a letter to send the good professor since he doesn't look at his email. His article is about Secretary of State Rice's assertion that the Chinese word for "crisis" contains the elements for danger and opportunity. The prof disagrees. Here is my take:


I recently read your article “How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray” which criticizes those who think wei1 ji1 contains the characters for “danger” and “opportunity” as “Pollyanaish,” “fatal misapprehension” and “fundamentally fallacious.” From what I can gather from your writing, you assert that people (Westerners or Chinese) should not look at the individual characters of the Chinese constructions because those individual characters do not retain their implied meaning in a combined construction when they are split apart from other combined constructions.

“Ji1” retains its meanings in the word for “airplane” “fei1 ji1” when the “ji1” is borrowed to make the word for “airport” “ji1 chang3.” Neither “fei1” or “ji1” necessarily means airplane, only “fei1 ji1” means airplane, but “ji1” means airplane when you combine it with “chang3” to make airport. So, I am not sure why I should accept your assertion that “ji1” cannot mean opportunity when it is combined with “wei1” when that same character retains the meaning of “airplane” when combined with “chang3.”

Words mean what people using the language think they mean. Just because a learned professor of East Asian languages thinks a combination of Chinese characters should mean one thing, and not another, does not necessarily make it so. You and I may think “三Q” is gibberish, but every Taiwanese kid knows it means “thank you.” If people think “wei1 ji1” means “danger + opportunity,” well then, it does. Further, it seems strange that someone who would coin and use an English word like “pollyanaish” would object to Chinese being used in the same way.

Finally, while your observation that: “Adopting a feel-good attitude toward adversity may not be the most rational, realistic approach to its solution” might be true of pessimists, Europeans and Penn academics, but most Americans, of whom the Secretary of State is most assuredly a fine example, prefer an optimistic view of world events. If optimists want to use Chinese characters to make that point, I would think that a “Sinologist” like yourself would applaud rather than throw brickbats.