Jan 19, 2007

Our Well-Briefed Secretary of State

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's recent visit to the Mideast featured three main items on the agenda, none of which turned out to be warmly received in the region.

(Rice) pitched President Bush's new plan for Iraq, tried to revive peace talks between the Israelis and the Palestinians and sought to organize an Arab coalition against "violent extremists" such as Iran. ...

The Arab media was highly skeptical of Rice's efforts. The Arab News, a Saudi newspaper, asked the day after she left Riyadh, "To what extent is Rice just another siren, mesmerizing the Middle East with pleasing songs while dragging it onto the rocks of fresh conflict because of her own country's incompetence?"

At one point, Rice said that the difficult circumstances in the Middle East could represent opportunity. "I don't read Chinese but I am told that the Chinese character for crisis is wei-ji, which means both danger and opportunity," she said in Riyadh. "And I think that states it very well. We'll try to maximize the opportunity."

But Victor H. Mair, a professor of Chinese at the University of Pennsylvania, has written on the Web site http://pinyin.info, a guide to the Chinese language, that "a whole industry of pundits and therapists has grown up around this one grossly inaccurate formulation." He said the character "ji" actually means "incipient moment" or a "crucial point." Thus, he said, a wei-ji "is indeed a genuine crisis, a dangerous moment, a time when things start to go awry."

The Washington Post suggests this morning that Ms. Rice's source for her mangled Chinese usage may have been the following:

Rice did not say where she learned this aphorism, but oddly enough it was once featured on "The Simpsons," as this excerpt from an episode shows:

Lisa: "Look on the bright side, Dad. Did you know that the Chinese use the same word for 'crisis' as they do for 'opportunity'?"

Homer: "Yes! Cris-atunity."

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