Being an individual raised in a challenging environment, I recently took it upon myself to read a self-help book of sorts. Neither the title nor the contents of said book are of consequence and shall remain undisclosed. However, a particular message of hope I encountered while helping myself gave me great inspiration. The message was essentially that the kanji characters for the Chinese word “crisis” could also be used to form the words “danger” and “opportunity”. The moral being that even in crisis though there is danger, there is also opportunity. And as an amateur artist I was inspired to paint these kanji to hang on my wall as an optimistic reminder.

Perusing the web for artistic representations of the kanji, I encountered a linguist’s version of this message [1]. The linguist was adamant that “opportunity” and “danger” did not make up “crisis” and reprimanded all us fools who could ever be so naïve. He even went on further to imply that the language was not only being misrepresented but also butchered by our ignorance. Needless to say this rude encounter caused a pause in my stride that had been eagerly leading me on to empowerment.

My wall never looked so bare and empty. The sense of loss that I was feeling at that particular moment started to give way to anger. How dare Mr. Linguist with his rigid rules, tell me how to interpret two kanji resting innocently side by side. True, each kanji when taken alone do not represent specifically “danger” and “opportunity,” but with the aid of other kanji they can most certainly become the meaning that I desire. It is simply a matter of placing the supporting kanji in the correct orientation. Since traditionally kanji are read from top to bottom, but due to Westernization may also be read from left to right, I am left with ample opportunity.

So even though Mr. Linguist briefly took the wind out of my sails, he encouraged me to ensure that I was not abusing the kanji. I therefore diligently researched both kanji in the making of the word “crisis” and all of their potential supporting kanji for all possible definitions. As a result, I have discovered that I can create many other words arising from “crisis” depending on which supporters I choose, such as; harm, risk, chance, turning point and wit.

My wall is now filled with kanji. My point, I suppose, is that the messages they convey all depends on how you look at them. And I will take from it what I will.

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1. danger + opportunity ≠ crisis: How a misunderstanding about Chinese characters has led many astray, Accessed October 18th, 2005

(Image from The Kanji Site, www.kanjisite.com)

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Leah Prentice is a PhD candidate in UBC's Department of Pathology. She relies on creative writing and painting to bring her back to ground after a long day of science.