Chinese characters and the Bible
The idea that Chinese characters contain Biblical messages is used by creationist and other Biblical literalist apologists to support their assertion that Biblical stories, and especially those told in Genesis, were known outside of the Ancient Near East, supposedly lending credibility to a literal interpretation of such stories as the worldwide flood of Noah and the confusion of man's languages at Babel.
This argument was notably propounded by C.H. Kang and Ethel Nelson in The Discovery of Genesis (1979), and is currently employed by missionaries to China and by Western apologists.
One example of such claims, taken from a Christian apologetics site, is as follows:
- "Genesis 2:8-9 relates that in the center of the Garden of Eden two special trees, the “tree of life” and the “tree of knowledge of good and evil” were present. So these two trees symbolize the Garden of Eden. Subsequently in Genesis 2:16-17 God forbids Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden to eat fruit from the tree of knowledge. In the Chinese the symbol for “forbidden” [禁] is composed of the symbol for “two trees” [林] and “command” [示] and the symbol for “desire” [婪] consists of symbols for “two trees” [林] and “woman” [女]."
- "The discovery of the Biblical roots of the Chinese pictorial characters points to a common bond between Chinese and Jewish people. This could well be explained by the accounts of the creation, the flood and the tower of Babel outlined in the first 11 chapters of Genesis."
Actual structure of Chinese characters
While Chinese characters (like most human writing systems) are ultimately derived from pictograms, when they became used for writing, they ceased to be pictographic. Most characters used in both modern and classical Chinese writing have both phonetic (establishing sound) and signific (hinting at a semantic category) components. According to DeFrancis (1984), the vast majority of Chinese characters (83% of those in common use based on an analysis by Chen Heqin) are phonetic compounds of this type. For example, the character 媽, used to mean 'mother', is composed of the elements 女 'woman' and 馬 'horse'. While the component meaning 'woman' hints that the character has something to do with women, the component meaning 'horse' in fact establishes pronunciation - both the 'mother' and 'horse' morphemes are pronounced /ma/, albeit with different tones.
Most of the characters used by literalists in attempts to support an argument that Biblical stories were known to the ancient Chinese are of this type. In the case of the two examples above, 林 actually hints at pronunciation. Ultimately, Chinese characters comprise a kind of syllabary (specifically a morphosyllabic writing system, in the terminology of DeFrancis), and treating the Chinese writing system as somehow directly encoding meanings without recourse to pronunciation is a trap that people unfamiliar with Chinese (and occasionally even native speakers) are frequently prone to fall into, but it should generally be avoided. In the words of linguist Arika Okrent (2009):
- "Chinese writing doesn't represent spoken language in the same way that alphabetic writing does, but it still represents spoken language - just in a much more complicated way."
And, in a more humorous take on the treatment of Chinese as particularly unique, Cracked.com columnist Christina H. offers the following:
- "For years, motivational speakers and the like have been touting how the Chinese word for "crisis" is made of "danger" and "opportunity," which (1) is bullshit and (2) is a little insulting as it implies Chinese words were created to teach lessons, unlike any other culture where words are created because you need to say that thing."
- "What would you think if you saw a Chinese motivational speaker teaching his audience that female family members cannot be relied upon to keep their heads in a crisis because the English word for crisis is made of "cry" and "sis"? You laugh, but considering there's 1.3 billion Chinese, someone's probably doing it."
Susceptibility to confirmation bias
The individual elements are often polysemous, and original meanings have been broadly extended over time. For instance, 口 can refer to mouths, numbers of people (as in how many mouths there are to feed), or even holes or caves. Biblical literalist analyses add to this "breath" in order to support an assertion that 園 'garden' contains a reference to God breathing life into Adam. Similarly, 林 is indeed made up of two trees, but it generally refers to wooded areas and not literally to two trees. Furthermore, the characters themselves can have a range of meanings. "Can" in English may refer to a metal container, a toilet, buttocks, ability, putting a stop to something, and so on, and the tendency to have a range of associated meanings, or even completely unrelated meanings is also present in Chinese (for instance, the character 説 in literary Chinese may be pronounced /shuo/ and have the meaning of 'speech', or /shui/ with the meaning of 'persuasion', or /yue/ with the meaning of 'happiness').
Ultimately then, most of these examples seem to involve confirmation bias in which ambiguous evidence is made to fit presupposed conclusions about the Bible. With so many choices, it is no surprise that literalists can shoehorn the components of a character into a story that corresponds to some aspect of their theology. In fact, it is not difficult to associate the verse that inspired the name of the Iron Chariots Wiki with a Chinese character (also see additional note):
Furthermore, some of these analyses are anachronistic, or simply wrong. 告 'tell/inform' is broken down into 土 'earth' (but glossed as the more creationism-friendly 'dust'), 口 'mouth' (but glossed as 'breath'), and a single brushstroke which these literalists claim means 'life'. But in fact, older forms of the character clearly have 牛 'ox' as the upper portion.
Standards of evidence
Even if it were somehow demonstrated that Chinese characters are evidence of ancient Chinese knowledge of Bible stories, this would be no reason to accept supernatural claims found in the Bible. Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence, and, for example, ancient transmission of these stories from the Near East to the Far East conflicts far less with the rest of the available evidence than the reality of a global flood or of many other claims made by creationists.
The character 鉄 originally meant something along the lines of 'to sew [cloth, etc.]' (when used as a verb) or 'rope' (when used as a noun), but it fell out of currency in these usages and took on its modern usage as a shorthand version (used mainly in Japanese and, with slight modification, in Simplified Chinese orthographies) of 鐵 'iron'. Biblical literalist sources employ similar anachronisms - for instance, the character 乱 'confusion' is linked to 舌 'tongue' as a purported allusion to the Babel story in Genesis (and there is also a false cultural assumption about a relationship between the word for 'tongue' and foreign languages), but its traditional form is in fact 亂.
- Chinese Characters and Genesis – These claims presented on the creationist site Answers in Genesis.
- Chinese Language and the Flood - Argument by YouTube creationist NephilimFree
- Chinese Characters and Genesis – A detailed skeptical analysis of many of the alleged connections between written Chinese and Genesis
- DeFrancis, John. The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy. Honolulu: University of Hawai'i Press, 1984.
- Okrent, Arika. In the Land of Invented Languages. New York: Spiegel & Grau, 2009.