Hanzi of Genesis
|The divine comedy|
Numerous Young earth creationists, including Answers in Genesis, Creation Ministries International, Institute for Creation Research, CreationWiki, and other creationists) claim that several Chinese hanzi characters indicate that the Chinese were aware of the events of Genesis long before their exposure to Christianity. After all, the development of Chinese characters pre-dates the writing of the Book of Genesis (but obviously only just, otherwise you might have had Chinese running around before the actual Creation). Thus, the Chinese characters seem to provide an 'independent' record of the events in Genesis.
The following is a response to CMI's original article on the subject.
Bear in mind that there's something like 50,000 hanzi characters, so the chances are good that when you're pattern matching, you will find something that looks just like you want it to. Further, given the number of languages in the world and the number of words in each language, it would be very surprising if there were no coincidences available for creationists. This is a typically pseudoscientific claim to be expected from people on par with myth-mongers like Erich von Däniken who get all agitated when they find similarities between unconnected things.
Initial problems with the hypothesis
Looking at the 7 characters in question and analysing them CMI's way, it becomes apparent that CMI has made the beginner's mistake of seeing a semantic-phonetic compound as an element-indicative compound. The vast majority of Chinese characters are compounds that include a phonetic element, as well as a semantic element.
In addition, the examples listed are taken from modern Simplified Chinese hanzi (which were not standardized until the 20th century). Modern hanzi are vastly different from the oracle bone script and bronze inscriptions, which date from an era closer to that of the supposed Genesis and which would be even more likely to contain elements indicating a knowledge of the events of Genesis.
船 - "Large boat"
This is actually the Chinese word for a simple "boat" or "ship" (chuán), not some particularly large variant. The correct term and hanzi for "large boat" is 舸 (gě). Japanese, notorious for its homophones,[note 1] refers to both symbols as fune, which is possibly where this mistake arose.
CMI attempts to break this character down into its components in order to establish a connection to the great Flood:
- 舟 does, when taken on its own, indeed mean "boat" (zhōu);
- 八 is indeed the number "eight" (bā), if used in isolation;
- 口 means "mouth" or "opening" (kǒu). CMI translates it as "people", to which it only has a very tangential relation, as 口 is the measure word for people.[note 2] The actual character for "person" is 人 rén, another common component that obviously does not appear in this character.
An alternative would be to use the character 舩, which also means "boat/ship/vessel" and is pronounced the same (chuán, Jpn. fune), but much less common. Its radicals are:
- 舟 "boat", same as above;
- 八 "eight", same as above;
- 厶 "personal/private", a variant of 私 (sī), which is even more tangential than the connection to "people" above.
The idea behind this setup is to suggest that the character refers to the eight people that were on the Ark: Noah, his wife, their three sons and their wives. However, CMI is making a crucial mistake in disassembling the character completely. What they ignore is the fact that Chinese characters are not made up exclusively of components that provide a meaning, but also of phonetic radicals that are supposed to offer a clue as to how they're pronounced. In both of the cases above, they simply skip this part in order to extract the meaning they want from it. The first character does not feature 八 and 口 as separate components, but rather as the combination 㕣 yǎn, with the (irrelevant) meaning of "marsh". Likewise, the second one features 公 gōng, "public" as the additional component.
Another point which they ignore completely is that there are specific kanji/hanzi for an ark — 方舟 (fāngzhōu) in Chinese or the Japanese 箱舟 hakobune which translates roughly as "square-boat", or "box-boat". Noah's Ark would be ノアの箱舟 — Noa no Hakobune.
The number eight has significance in Chinese culture (e.g., Eight Immortals, Eight Trigrams of the I Ching). Finding yet another eight is unsurprising.
Creationists use this claim to bolster the idea that the Chinese, along with all other cultures, are descended from Noah and his family. Creationists fail to realize that of the two deluge legends from Chinese mythology, one myth involves the flood being averted twice, and the other features a brother, Fuxi, and a sister, Nuwa, survive the flood in a gourd, with all non-divine life perishing. Moreover, the Chinese invented the word "八" 1,800 years ago. Why would the Chinese wait 1,200 years after the Flood to commemorate it in their written language? The claim that Chinese characters commemorate the Noachian Deluge is nonsense.
婪 - "Covet"
Another mistranslation, this one's not a verb, but the adjective "greedy" (lán). Here we have the combination of "two trees" (林 — which is actually the symbol for "grove" or "forest", lín) with the symbol for woman (女 nǚ). I assume the straw they're grasping at here has to do with Eve (yes, it's all her fault, of course) and the tree of Life and The Knowledge of Good and Evil, which apparently was actually "two trees".[note 3] Anyway, they once again ignore the phonetic aspect of the character — here, it's 林 lín, which is again not supposed to provide meaning. It is, unfortunately, not uncommon for Chinese characters with negative connotations to feature the symbol for "woman", so this can't simply be taken as any reference to Eve. Sexism comes in many other forms than just the Christian concept of original sin and the woman who allegedly started it all. Here are a couple of examples from Japanese that feature 女 onna in a less-than-complimentary sense:
- 妃 — queen (technically, King's concubine(s) consort (specifically not wife) or consort/wife for princes)
- 妄 — delusion
- 妛 — ugly
- 佞 — flattery
- 委 — committee
- 萎 — wither
I quite like "wither" — it's "committee", with the radical for "grass" added. And "ugly" appears to be "woman from the mountain".
造 - "Create"
Here, the authors would have you believe that the symbol 造 zào is a combination of the symbols for "speak", "dust", "life" and "walk", obviously referring to the creation of Adam. They break the character down as follows:
- 告 — gào, specifically "to tell", not "to speak";
- 土 — tǔ is indeed "soil", or "earth", but that's not a component here;
- 丿 —piě is supposed to mean "life"; which is completely false (see below);
- 辶 — chuò, "go"
Oh, boy, this makes it obvious that whoever came up with this nonsense had no clue of Chinese characters whatsoever. First off, they're resorting to a transparent trick here: 告 is once being counted as a component of its own, and then they're trying to extract additional meaning from its supposed parts 土 and 丿. Unfortunately, that's not how it works. 告 on its own does mean "tell", but its components, in turn, are 牛 niú ("ox", strangely) and 口 kǒu ("mouth"). You can't separate ⺧ into 土 and 丿, it's a fixed component, and anyone with even just elementary knowledge of Hanzi would immediately recognize it as such. 丿 on its own would be meaningless anyway, because it's simply one of the elementary strokes used to write characters (like one of the lines in Latin letters). So the character for "create" is simply made up of 告 and 辶, "tell" and "go". Using CMI's standards, we can deduce that the ancient Chinese intended this to be a secret message to creationists: go and tell others.
完 - "Complete"
Both The Genesis Site and CMI make the same mistake here, by first breaking down the character 元 (yuan meaning "first" or the basic unit of currency) into 二 èr (two) and 儿 rén (person). The second one is correct (儿, meaning "children", is an adaption of 人 and pronounced "ér"), but 二 is actually not the character for "two" itself, but rather derived from 上 shàng ("up/above", "superior").
CMI and GS then claim that "Complete" is formed by taking what they think is "two people" (元) and giving them a "home" (宀). However, 宀 mián is not strictly the hanzi for home — it does form a part of that character, 宅 zhái, but on its own, it means "roof". However, this is another example of mistaking the phonetic element for the indicative element — in this case 元 yuan is simply the phonetic element of the symbol 完 wán.
What this interpretation is supposed to reveal isn't detailed, but a reasonable guess is that they probably think people can only be "complete" as a couple living together under the same roof. Unfortunately, the same word also means "end", "to exhaust" or "use up" (make of that what you will). If this is supposed to invoke "family values", the actual Chinese character for family, 家 jiā is composed of a roof (宀) sheltering pigs (豕). Nice!
禁 - "Forbidden"
Once again, we have the combination of "two trees" (林 lín, "grove" or "forest") with what they say is the abbreviated symbol for "God" (示). Actually, the Chinese and Japanese character for "god" is 神 shén / kami. The radical on the left-hand side of that symbol is indeed 示, but it is only a part of the character, this time the one supplying meaning. Here, its phonetic counterpart is 申 shēn. You can't just pull a character apart and treat single components as if they had the same meaning as the whole character, only "abbreviated". That would result in total confusion, because the same components appear again and again in lots of characters with totally different meanings. 示 does not have anything to do with god per se, but it does appear in several characters related to religion and rites. Its modern meaning is "to show, indicate, or point out", but its ancient one might have been "altar". It should be noted that this one is the closest CMI gets to a correct interpretation, and it's still way off the mark.
It's also quite possible that the early symbol for forbidden, with its "pointing out" and "grove of trees", was probably more akin to a farmer saying "You dishonorable children keep your hands off my lychees, or I shall disembowel you myself." Actually, while we're having fun with pulling apart these kanji/hanzi, here's two more fun additions to play with:
- If 禁 means "to forbid', isn't it fun to know that 噤 (forbid + mouth) = "Shut up"?
- Likewise, (宗) is religion, which could be said to be a "place of instruction" (or to use the theory above, "God's house" or something). However, the first thing I thought when seeing it was "put a lid on it."
園 - "Garden"
A slight inconsistency here, as they suddenly start analyzing Traditional Chinese or Japanese characters instead of the simplified ones above. Anyway, here's their breakdown of the components:
- 囗 — wéi, "to surround";
- 土 — tǔ meaning "soil" or "earth";
- 口 — kǒu as above, "mouth", but they claim it represents breath. This is wrong, although it does feature in two (Japanese) compounds to do with breath — 口気 and 口臭... both of which refer to halitosis.
- Finally, you know there's something strange going on, when the breakdown includes a hanzi element that does not exist — in this case the symbol they use for "2 people". The closest one gets to what they used is 仆, which means "to fall", or "lie down".
As that last part indicates, they're once more playing their strange game of breaking up indivisible components. The component featured in the character's center is the phonetic element 袁 yuán , a rare character in its own right that usually appears as a surname (for example, Yuan Shikai 袁世凯). Apparently, it used to mean "a long robe" and was probably derived from 衣 yī, "clothing". Anyway, it cannot be broken up any further.
魔 - "Tempter"
Actually, the symbol above — mó in Chinese, ma in Japanese — means "demon", "witch" or "evil spirit" and has nothing at all to do with "tempter". The closest kanji and simplified hanzi to "tempter" is 诱惑者 (Chin. yòuhuòzhě, Jpn. yuuwaku sha) arrived at from "temptation" (诱惑) + "someone of that nature" (者). Let's give them the benefit of the doubt and assume that it's just their specific way of referring to Satan instead of another mistranslation. Again, they first break this character down into two components:
It's legitimate to break the second radical down further into 林, "forest", and 广, a "shed", but once again, 麻 is clearly the phonetic component. It gets more complicated, because they then go on to claim that 鬼 is itself divided into several further parts:
- 厶 — sī, "private" (they take it to mean "secret");
- 儿 — ér, from 人 rén, "person";
- 丿 — piě, the same meaningless stroke featured above, again translated as "life";
- 田 — tián, "field", which they think means "garden". It does not.
Apart from these interpretations being completely false, 鬼 actually doesn't feature any components; it's an adaptation of a very old depiction of a ghost. The character in question can be traced back to the ancient oracle bone script in much the same form. Apart from that, it's much more fun to just take this as "hemp" and "devil", as we all know why hemp fell into disfavour now, don't we. And a devil who plies you with hemp, probably could be a witch, or evil (and it might be tempting too!) but sadly, it has nothing to do with the word "temptation", or "tempter".
But then there's more! The book which underlies this all is titled God’s Promise to the Chinese, which would have the perception of targeting perhaps some Chinese audiences, is only written in English. No Chinese translation has been found as of August 2009.
- A similar refutation based on similar claims on The Genesis Site
- The Genesis Site being refuted
- Claim CG101, Talk Origins
- CMI misrepresents ancient Chinese language?, from CMI
- This is more or less why kanji (the Japanese equivalent of hanzi) is used in the first place. Sure, it's easier to learn the simpler kana writing systems and write using only that, but it ends up being a pain in the ass trying to figure out what the words mean.
- Measure words are a peculiar characteristic of the Chinese language, they have to be used whenever any kind of quantity of something is given. For an analogy, think of how English speakers always say "three sheets of paper" or "twelve head of cattle". In Chinese, one might say "eight mouths of people".
- If your god is supposed to be a single being, but actually three entities, of which one is another's father, this might make more sense to you.
- Reference to a similar display of calligraphy in Portsmouth's (UK) Creation Museum
- JA Wikipedia entry for "方舟"