Recently a friend asked for help with the etymology of the word 危险。 She’s writing her thesis on the edge that artists have when they skillfully play with “danger.” Her whole thesis revolves around the concept of Danger in art and all her professors keep telling her that 危险 has a different connotation in Chinese than danger does in English. So she needs someone to help her to figure out what 危险originally means in Chinese.
I am no etymologist in either language, and I am pretty sure that Chinese dictionaries like 《辞海》or 《辞源》can help. Unfortunately I do not have either here. So I could just search online for usage in the past and here is what I find from Baidu’s encyclopedia:
1. 亦作”危嶮 ”。艰危险恶，不安全。谓有可能导致灾难或失败。《韩非子•有度》：“外使诸侯，内耗其国，伺其危险之陂以恐其主。”险，一本作“ 嶮 ”。 汉 匡衡 《奏徙南北郊》：“劳所保之民，行危险之地，难以奉神灵而祈福祐。”《醒世恒言•隋炀帝逸游召谴》：“欲泛 孟津 ，又虑危险。” 曹禺 《北京人》第三幕：“把自己的快乐完全放在一个人的身上是危险的。”
It is pretty obvious that whenever the word 危险 appears, it does not differ with the word “danger”. It translates into: Difficult, perilous, unsafe, having the potential to cause diasters or failures.
2. 指险恶、险要之地。《列子•黄帝》：“夫至信之人，可以感物也……岂但履危险、入水火而已哉！”《南史•垣护之传》：“ 楷 怆然许之，厚为之送，于是间关危险，遂得至乡。”
In this second explaination, 危险means basically a perilous place, a perilous situation. In the example given for this explanation, a writer says: the most faithful of people not only put their feet in peril and walk in fire and water (also means dangerous situations)…”
I wonder if it is this second connotation that the friend’s professors are talking about. Maybe they are saying that the word “edge” as being somewhat equally capable of producing creativity and disaster, whereas the Chinese word of 危险 has nothing whatsoever to do with the “creativity” or “leading” connotation of the word “edge”. In the Chinese context, playing with danger (fire) is something to be frowned upon at best, or simply percieved as stupid or anti-social. You hear of Coleridge writing the Kublai Khan after taking opium. But you wouldn’t hear of Li Bai the great poet try something like that.
However, as the world is getting flat, recently I heard a lot of talk about “巅峰体验”（Peek experience）which emphasizes enjoyment at great heights. That might be closer to the English phrase of “on the edge”, except that peek experience does not necessarily involve an element of danger in itself (though getting there may). I have heard of more and more drug abuse, and other types of “dangerous” activities or relationships, among Chinese artists in the past decade. Fortunately, Haruki Murakami recently wrote “What I talk about when I talk about running” in which the famous Japanese author run marathons habitually as an antidote to his “unhealthy” habit of writing. That seems to suggest a better way to rid the body, mind and soul of the innate toxins of writing or other types of creativitive activities. Let the body fuel the mind, so, whoever is reading this, get moving! (Quotation from Murakami’s book: “Please excuse the strange analogy: with a fugu fish, the tastiest part is the portion near the poison — this might be something similar to what I’m getting at… So from the start, artistic activity contains elements that are unhealthy and antissocial. … This is why among writers and other artists there are quite a few whose real lives are decadent or who pretned to be antisocial… But those of us hoping to have long careers as professional writers have to develop an autoimmune system of our own that can resist the dangours (in some cases lethal ) toxin that reside within…”)
Back to danger and risk taking topic. Some adventurous activities are indeed dangerous, but have the potential of producing something useful for humanilty. For instance, Benjamin Franklin flew a kite to capture electricity and almost got himself killed in the storm. Thomas Edison blew up his chemicals on a train and got himself deaf. Is there any risk-free invention? That does not sound right.
Then I remembered an evening when I see a few teenagers engaged in a very dangerous activity near the Ohio River. They rode their bikes from a slope, lift themselves up and throw themselves into the river, bikes and all. To me that is stupid, unhealthy, unproductive. Certainly not my idea of having fun. Then there are those who iron their T-shirts on a cliff in what is labeled “extreme ironing”. Obviously there are people who enjoy having fun when they are pushed to the limit, literally.
In other words, purpose-driven edginess produces inventors and entrepreneurs. Random edginess produces jackasses and reality show freaks. But to stay on the “edge”, society pays the price of tolerating some oddballs.
The dual nature of “edge” explains the relative adventurousness of westerners, because indeed some would go to great extremes (limits, edges) to pursue utmost happiness or achievement. That may be something to think and learn about. But these are not us. Sometime in history, we developed a mentality that appreciates being among the mean, median and mode of things. We call it balance. We call it the golden means. Outliers are those who lie somewhere, out. That is very different from the “leading –edge” mentality. Being on the leading edge is something to be admired. You are on the edge. You lead. We say these too, in phrases like “敢为天下先”(Dare to be the first in the world”), but then there are many more guns aimed at the first bird who sticks its head out. In this kind of environment, first movers have less advantage than second movers, but collectively we risk becoming leggards. We need to dare to be the first again.
But this does not seem to be a popular idea. Even one of the most successful CEOs of China, Ma Huateng of QQ (the Chinese version of MSN), says that he never try to be randomly creative. Even Google, he said, imitate something from somebody. There is some truth to that, but not much.
Of course, even Rogers, the author of “Diffusion of Innovations” (which is like the Bible of innovation) says that innovation is what is PERCIEVED as new by the user, not necessary something out of nowhere. After all, according to King Soloman, there is nothing new under the sun. However, it becomes a problem, when “shan zhai culture” (山寨文化), or copycat culture, becomes part of the culture. I sometimes wonder what to make of it, if you watch someone try and wait to see if it works. That’s good peer learning for sure. But in the long run, is that wisdom or stupidity?