Wednesday, May 25, 2005

gi-hwae and wi-gi

Famous Chinese scholar Victor Mair (perhaps best known to the public for his excellent translation of the Te Tao Ching [sic] based on the Ma Wang Dui manuscripts) goes on a rampage about the repeated mistranslation of the Chinese character ji (pronounced "gi" in Korean), which many non-Chinese-speakers take to mean "opportunity." Mair is specifically railing against those inspirational business self-help books that claim the Chinese word for "crisis," wei-ji (Sino-Korean wi-gi) is composed of the characters for "danger" and "opportunity." Not so, he contends:

Many coinages that made it into twentieth-century báihuà (vernacular Mandarin) are based on traditional uses of words. That is to say, new compounds using ji draw on traditional uses of ji.

There is no traditional use of ji that means "opportunity" per se. Jihuì is a neologism coined to translate the English word "opportunity."

Out of curiosity, I went to the scholar on my shelf, Bruce K. Grant, to see what he had to say about the Sino-Korean character gi. Grant offers these meanings (meant to describe a semantic field, not present a precise definition of a character):

loom; mechanism, machine; opportunity; secret

This is why scholars are damn useless: they never agree on anything. Grant, himself a Chinese expert, lists "opportunity" as a possible translation of gi; Mair says such a translation is right out, or at best a modernization of the term.

My question for Mair (and for any Chinese scholars reading my blog) is this: how old is the Korean word gi-hwae ("opportunity," Chn. ji-hui)? If it's a neologism in Chinese... what exactly are we saying? How "neo" is this neo logos? Could it be that the Chinese (and, by extension, the Koreans and Japanese) had no notion of "opportunity" before encountering Western civilization? If they did have such a notion, what word(s) did they use? If I were to look at a Korean dictionary from two centuries ago, would I find a definition of gi-hwae that matches, more or less, our modern notion of "opportunity"?

This is a personal wi-gi (crisis) for me.

NB: The wi in wi-gi appears in the Sino-Korean word wi-heom, the actual term for "danger."

Maybe I'll run this question by Mark Miyake. For all I know, he's dealt with it already.


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