Lesson: Chinese Etymology

Note: Certain Chinese terms are in Chinese Big-5 encoding.  When I have the time I'll turn them into tiny graphics...


    Note: most of the materials here are taken from The Discovery of Genesis by C.H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson (ISBN: 0-570-03792-1).
    The written Chinese language is perhaps one of the most fascinating things in humanities that one can study.  It is one of the oldest and few remaining systems that still has some components of pictographs (describing an object by imitating the "form" of that object (see footnote 1)) and ideographs (describing "ideas" through some representation that would lead to the meaning (see footnote 2)).  The (traditional) written Chinese language has remained basically unchanged for at least 2,200 years.  It may have begun as early as 4,500 years ago during the legendary time of Huang Ti (the Yellow Emperor) but its development continued for the next few thousand years.  The most basic components and characters of written Chinese were developed hundreds of years before the start of Taoism (about 550BC), the Chinese folk religion, and the importation of Buddhism from India (about 70BC).  So a study of the origins of the written language, a field called etymology, can tell us a lot about what the very early Chinese believed...  And the amazing thing is, many of these early characters seem to tell stories found in the first part of Genesis!
    What did the ancient Chinese believe in?  Confucius, the great Chinese philosopher and teacher, lived at a time when Taoism and Buddhism were just getting started.  In his writing, Confucius recorded the religious practices of ancient Chinese before his time.  He talked about the legendary emperors worshipping the Heaven (¤Ñ) or the Heavenly Emperor (¤W«Ò).  He talked about how there is only one Heavenly Emperor and how the ancient emperors would sacrifice animals to him every year.  The ancient Chinese believed in a single God, but around 200BC a Taoist politician began to teach the people that there are 5 gods.  The chief censor wrote to the emperor and that politician was executed, but people continued the practice for the next 1,200 years.  In 1369AD two groups of imperial historians studied the ancient texts and concluded that there is only one Heavenly Emperor, and the Ming emperor told people to return to the ancient practices of monotheism (one god).
    So since the ancient Chinese people had beliefs that are very similar to that of the Old Testament, and the written language developed before the rise of alternative religions still has a large number of characters based on pictography and ideography, then finding Old Testament stories dated before 2,500BC being told in many Chinese characters could be possible.  Finding that to be true is therefore another evidence showing that Genesis is not just the myth of the Hebrews...
 In written Chinese and many ancient languages, pictographs form the basics of the system.  Drawing a simplified representation of an object is an easier way than to draw a picture everytime (not to mention that a man's horse drawing could look like a dog to another person).  "Standardizing" that simplified drawing and you have a simple pictograph.  Some of these basic pictographs become "radicals"--basic building blocks for more complex characters.  Combine these pictographs and radicals in a meaningful way and you get characters that can represent abstract things, or "ideographs."  Many more characters are created by combining radicals and characters in non-meaningful ways but a part of the character contributes to the sound of the final character.  These are called "phonetic" characters.  There are more refined divisions of Chinese characters (six in all), but for our purpose here these three are enough to start with.
    One of the characters most frequently cited is "ship" (²î), which is made up of "eight" (¤K) "people" (¤f - mouths or the number of person) in a "boat" (¦à).  But it is possible that ancient China may have a large boat that takes exactly eight people, and therefore this may be simply a coincidence...  Therefore, the search becomes more intensive on ideographs that represent complex, abstract ideas that are less likely to be the results of coincidence.
    Interestingly, some ideographs that seem to be made up of irrelevant radicals to an ordinary Chinese scholar would make a lot of sense to an observant Christian.  The word "to create" (³y) is to give "life/movement" (ÆÀ) to "dust/mud" (¤g) to make a "person/mouth" (¤f) that can "walk" (¨«).  The word "happiness" or "blessings" (ºÖ ) is "one" (¤@) "person/mouth" (¤f) in the "field/garden" (¥Ð) with "God" (¥Ü - a radical representing deity).  The word "greed/lust" (°ý ) is a "woman" (¤k ) under or getting two "trees" (ªL )--Eve was told to eat from the Tree of Life but not the Tree of the Fruit of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, the second tree, but she was not satisfied with the first one (Tree of Life) and went to eat from the second tree.  The word "prohibited" or "to prohibit" (¸T ) is "God's" "instructions" (¥Ü  - interestingly, this radical, when used as a character in itself, means "to reveal" or "to show") regarding the "two trees" or "the second tree" (ªL ).
    Perhaps the most amazing character is "Spirit" (ÆF), which is made up of "rain" («B), "three persons" (3 ¤f), and "worker of magic" (§Å).  The Holy Spirit has been associated with rain partly because of Joel 2:23 and 2:28 -- "For He has given the early rain for your vindication...  The early and the latter rains, as before...  And it shall come to pass afterward, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh..."  Interestingly, in the lesson "Creation--Or Was It?" we talked about how the Holy Spirit worked to clean up the atmosphere, and much of it is to reduce the concentration of water vapor through precipitation.  The "three persons" component refers to the Trinity.  The "worker of magic" is a strange yet suitable way of describing what the Holy Spirit did during creation--creating orderly things out of a mess or nothing.  Interestingly, the character (§Å) is made up of "working" (¤u ) among "men" (¤H).  Isn't that what the Holy Spirit does nowadays?
    A concept most central to the Christian faith is "righteousness" or "justification."  The Chinese character for these two terms is ¸q , which is easily divided into two parts, "sheep" or "goat" (¦Ï) and "I/me" (§Ú).  Let the "lamb" (Jesus) cover you and you are justified.  If we dig into the character for "I," we can see that it's made up of a "hand" (¤â) and a "lance" (¤à )--the Lamb of God, Jesus, would be killed by the hands of man to complete the sacrifice which leads to our salvation.  Old Testament sacrifices also required the redeemed person to lay his hand on the sacrificial animal as a way to show that the animal will die in his place (substitutionary atonement).
    Fascinating enough?  Here's the final kicker: the first word (¥@) in the term "generation" (¥@¥N) looks like a combination of "seven" (¤C) and two "tens" (¤Q).  In the lesson "When Will Jesus Return?" we concluded how a generation should be seventy years, plus a possible extra ten years... (Dr. Kang and Dr. Nelson had a different interpretation for this character, however.)
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Footnotes:
(1) For example, the sun is written as ¤é .
(2) For example, "dawn" is written as ¥¹ , which is the sun above the ground.  That same word is used to represent "beginning" or "first."


This lesson was developed by George Huang.  Got a question or want to publish this lesson?  E-mail me.

Last updated: 4/9/2000