Summary: Does an analysis of individual ancient Chinese characters (ie by etymology) support the accounts of the origin of man and his early history as recorded in the Book of Genesis? This article examines this whole issue and concludes that a case may well be made for it.
A recent article by an American Sinologist Ethel Nelson in an Australian-based creationist magazine (1) suggests that an analysis of Chinese written characters shores up the accounts of the origin of man and his fall into sin as recorded in the biblical account of Genesis.
On the face of it, this may well be credible because the unique, non-alphabetic Chinese written language with its intriguing pictograms and ideograms is the oldest written one still in continuous use. It even antedates the classical Hebrew of Genesis which is believed to have been written by Moses, possibly in the 15th century BC.
Other civilisations admittedly went further back in antiquity - the Sumerians and the Egyptians for example. But the pictographic writing of the Sumerians have long ago passed out of use, and that fate has similarly befallen the Egyptian hieroglyphics.
Writing is a central feature in Chinese civilisation. Indeed the present word "civilisation" in Chinese is wen hua - which conveys the notion that civilisation is nothing less than change brought about by the written word.
When did Chinese writing actually begin? Its genesis is remote and little known today, for there is a lack of documentary evidence. One legend says it was a minister of the legendary Yellow Emperor who first invented the script after observing the footprints of birds and beasts
According to tradition, the Xia dynasty (2200-1700BC) constituted the first Chinese state but no written records or artifacts have so far been discovered of such a dynasty.
However, next came the Shang dynasty (1700-1066BC) and that has bequeathed us with a large body of the earliest written records - oracle inscriptions on tortoise shell and oxen bone. These were discovered by one Liu O during a flood in northern China in 1899.
Studies of these inscriptions subsequently showed that even by the time of the Shang dynasty, the language had grown to a corpus of 4,500 very complex characters, of which 1,700 have been deciphered so far. This indicates that the Chinese script had already been existence for quite some time prior to it.
The various characters were standardised for the first time in 221 BC by the first emperor of united China, Shi Huang Di. The first great dictionary, Shuo Wen Jie Zi was the work of a forest of scholars under the Han dynasty lexicographer Xu Shen. Completed in 121AD, it analysed the Chinese characters into their components, but no connections with the Hebrew accounts of Genesis were mentioned.
The support of the ancient Chinese pictograms for the Genesis account that has subsequently emerged is noteworthy considering that China was long geographically isolated in East Asia from the other centres of civilisation in India, the Middle East and the west.
The Nestorian form of Christianity came very much later, being introduced from Persia via the Silk Road of Central Asia into 7th century Tang dynasty China. By the 10th century Persian Jews had arrived in China, settling at Kaifeng in northern China's Henan province.
After Catholic missionaries arrived in China, there were Jesuit writers in Ming dynasty times who, as far back as the early 17th century, believed that the Chinese characters encapsulated biblical incidents and truth, and wrote accordingly (2)
Protestant and Catholic missionaries came in large numbers during the 19th and 20th centuries, almost in parallel with western expansionism into China. Protestant missionaries (including the Episcopalian Bishop of China, Samuel Schereschewsky, of Jewish descent) attempted to translate and did translate the Bible or parts of it into Mandarin and various Chinese dialects.
One of them, the 19th century English founder of the China Inland Mission, Hudson Taylor analysed Chinese characters and used them for evangelistic purposes eg he analysed the character for "come" and suggested that it was picture of Jesus on the cross with two thieves beside him.
But it was left to one C.H. Kang to write a small book, Genesis and the Chinese, which was published in Hong Kong in 1950, in which he showed that there were Chinese characters which corroborated the Hebrew account of man's early history from the creation.
An updated version was co-authored with Ethel Nelson, and published by as The Discovery of Genesis in 1979. One of Kang's many examples was the Chinese word for boat, chuan, which was an picto-ideogram revealing that only eight people were saved in a vessel (3).
This was remarkably similar - with the benefit of hindsight - to the Hebrew account of Genesis which recorded that only eight people were saved in Noah's ark - Noah himself, his wife, Noah's three sons, Shem, Ham and Japheth and their respective wives.
The evangelist Billy Graham referred to this Chinese character through his interpreter, Peter Yap, when speaking at his Singapore crusade in 1979. This "boat" character has also been written about in the book Eternity In Their Hearts by Don Richardson, a veteran American missionary.
But apart from these single Chinese words, there is an ancient Chinese expression of four words - renyi daode. This moralistic expression featured in a number of Chinese sayings (4).
With the benefit of hindsight it may well be possible to link individual ancient Chinese characters with the Genesis records. However, it may go against astronomical odds to suggest that this integral string of four words in their exact order contains something far beyond the Old Testament account of Genesis - the basic storyline of the gospels.
For it has been analysed and suggested that the New Testament gospel message of Jesus Christ from birth to death on a cross, to the coming of the Holy Spirit and the Great Commission had in effect been prophesied (5)
With such an ancient history and a reverence for the written word in the Middle Kingdom, one might well expect that the Chinese histories or written historical records would bolster the Genesis accounts. Unfortunately, while China does possess the world's largest literary collection by virtue of numbers and time - they do not.
The most ancient of the Chinese classical books is the Shu Jing (Book of History). The book has come down to us in mutilated form but it did not profess to give a history of China from the dawn of its history. It was simply a collection of historical memorials, extending over a space of 1,700 years between 2357-627BC, but with no connected method, and with frequent and great gaps between them
However, it does mention at one point a great flood - it was interpreted by the American Jewish writer Immanuel Velikovsky as referring to the biblical flood: "In their vast extent they embrace the hills and overtop the great heights, threatening the heavens with their floods, so that the lower people groan and murmur!" (6)
(At this juncture one should record that Velikovsky has also quoted western written accounts of physical evidences at the village of Zhoukoudian, near Beijing of a worldwide deluge (7). This was in the form of fractured bones in a cave of seven human individuals - a European, Melanesian and Eskimo type.
The finders of the conglomerates of bones were perplexed also by the animal remains; the bones belonged to animals of the tundras, or a cold-wet climate; of steppes and prairies, or dry climate; and of jungles,or warm-moist climate, "in a strange mixture." Mammoths and buffaloes and ostriches and arctic animals left their teeth, horns, claws, and bones in one great melange.)
It is also worth noting that the British Sinologist E.T.C. Werner wrote that a legend of a great flood was traced to Lieh Zi, a Taoist who lived in the 5th century BC; he told of a legend of one Nu Wa or Nu Kua who repaired the heavens after a great flood. It was also said that this Nu Kua moulded the first man out of clay (8). Perhaps this Nu Wa was a corruption for the biblical Noah, and he seemed to have been confused with the biblical Adam who was made out of dust of the earth.
Werner also mentioned in a footnote other remarkable Sino-Hebrew parallelisms of religious beliefs recorded in Chinese Repository: There was an age of primeval chaos, virtue and happiness, paradise, a garden with a tree bearing 'apples of immortality', guarded by a winged serpent (dragon), the fall of man, and the bginnings of lust and war (9)
There are other curious similarities in Chinese and Hebrew religious practices which may well have stemmed from a common origin.
Both follow a lunisolar calendar, the former from as early as the time of the Shang dynasty until this century. (Here one notes that though the Japanese borrowed Chinese characters into their writing system to incorporate three kinds of scripts, they keep a solar calendar.)
Moreover, the Jews were required under the Mosaic law to sacrifice sheep to their LORD at the beginning of their months (10), as well as bullocks for burnt offerings (11).
In the case of China, in the time of Confucius, sheep were also offered at the beginning of the months (12). Furthermore, the Chinese emperor as the "Son of Heaven" followed a very ancient custom of sacrificing a bull once a year during the Border Sacrifice - a practice that only ended when feudal China was overthrown in the 1911 Revolution.
(1) Ethel Nelson, The original 'unknown' god of China, Creation, Vol 20 No 3 (June-Aug 1998), p50-53
(2) Paul, A. Rule, Kung-tzu or Confucius? The Jesuit Interpretation of Confucianism, Allen & Unwin, Australia, 1986 - quoted in Ong Hean-Tatt, The Chinese Pakua, Pelanduk Publications, Petaling Jaya, Malaysia, 1991, p166
(3) C.H. Kang, and Ethel Nelson, The Discovery of Genesis, Concordia Publishing House, United States, 1979, p 95
(4) Clifford H. Popper, Chinese Religion Seen Through the Proverbs, Shanghai Modern Publishing House, Shanghai, China, 1935). Quoted in Ong Hean-Tatt, The Chinese Pakua
(5) Goh Soo Yim, The Greatest Love Story, Kuala Lumpur, 1983
(6) The Book of History, Part I: The Book of Thang, The Canon of Yao, chapter 3 (The Sacred Books of China, Vol III, Part I, translated by James Legge, Motilal Banarsidass, Delhi, 1970 reprint, p35)
(7) Immanuel Velikovsky,
Earth in Upheavel, Sphere Books Ltd, London, 1973 ed, p55-56.
He was quoting J.S. Lee,
The Geology of China, London, 1939, p370 and R. Moore, Man,
Time, and Fossils, 1953,
pp274-75; Moore in turn quoted the studies of Franz Weidenreich.
See also Jia Lanpo, Early Man In China, Foreign Languages Press, Beijing, 1980, p30-31.
(8) E.T.C. Werner, Myths and Legends of China, Graham Brash (Pte) Ltd, Singapore, 1984, p81-82
(9) Chinese Repository, vii, 520-521, quoted in Ref 6, p79. Sinologist James Legge elsewhere gives the date of Chinese Repository as 1835.
(10) Numbers 28:11
(11) Lev 9:2
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