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CMI misrepresents ancient Chinese language?

This letter comes from Peter Seebach, a professing Christian from Saint Paul, Minnesota, who gave permission for his full name to be used.  He refers us to an infidel web site where he has been unequally yoked with anti-christians in slamming fellow Christians for supposedly misusing the studies of Chinese writing to show that the Chinese people had a common history with other people, right back to Creation, the Garden of Eden, the Fall and the Flood, etc.  See for example, our articles on this subject at Q&A: Linguistics — Are ancient Chinese characters related to Genesis?  His letter is printed entire, apart from a deleted URL (our clearly stated feedback rules do not allow advertising of other web sites).  His letter is printed again, with a point-by-point response from Dr Don Batten. [Note: the Chinese characters might not display on older operating systems— Editors].


Hi! I am writing to express my concern that some of the material on your web page contradicts my knowledge of a mildly obscure topic, familiar to perhaps at most a billion people.

Chinese.

The claims on your site about Chinese characters and their relationship to Genesis are, unfortunately, based on some work that is very widely cited — and, so far as I can tell, totally wrong. There are substantial errors made in the so-called “etymologies”; these are often extreme, such as claiming that a symbol means “eight” when it is not, in fact, the symbol for eight; other similar errors occur. The original research all seems to date back to a 1979 book which is chock-full of these “etymologies” — and every one I’ve looked at has been fundamentally incorrect.

I have also been told (although, not having been there, I don’t know) that the “Shang Di” translation for God is a translation of a new word that was incorporated when missionaries arrived in China — not necessarily related to any alleged creation stories.

However, I can say with total certainty that every one of the “etymologies” I’ve seen has been *DEEPLY* flawed. I believe these arguments reflect very badly on creationism; they have been studied a few times that I’m aware of, and everyone ends up coming to the conclusion that the people who put them together were either ignorant of Chinese, or being willfully dishonest. As a Christian, I am inclined to attribute it to well-meaning but misguided efforts to find truth in everything. In the case of the Chinese characters, I think the etymologies have nothing to do with the creation story.

I am not myself a believer in literal creation, but I respect the honest effort you are making to present the arguments for this belief in the best and most honest manner you can. If all creationists were like you, at least the debate would be a serious inquiry into truth.

I’m leaving “no” checked for “does your message require a reply”, but I would appreciate one; if you want to see an analysis of this, I posted a thread about it to talk.origins a while back. I know that may not be your favorite site, but I found a good link to the discussion here [deleted because our clearly stated feedback rules do not allow advertising of other web sites — Ed.]


Hi! I am writing to express my concern that some of the material on your web page contradicts my knowledge of a mildly obscure topic, familiar to perhaps at most a billion people.

Chinese.

Indeed, Chinese is a very important language, and deserving of study.  We agree on this!  This is why we have a Chinese language section of the CMI website.

The claims on your site about Chinese characters and their relationship to Genesis are, unfortunately, based on some work…

I should point out that the force of the argument from the analysis of Chinese characters does not rest on just some imaginative possibilities.  I was initially sceptical, as were some of my colleagues; it was almost ‘too good to be true’.  However, I became fully persuaded of the truth of the story told by the study of Chinese characters as I saw the consistent pattern in hundreds of characters, and especially so in the earliest forms of Chinese writing that are preserved on pieces of bone (‘oracle bones’)—writing that pre-dates even Moses—and also on ancient bronzeware.  The studies show with little doubt that the origins of Chinese writing were hieroglyphic; that is, as symbols with religious significance.  Readers are referred to more recent publications such as God’s Promise to the Chinese, by Nelson, Broadberry and Tong Chock, published in 1997, God and the Ancient Chinese by Wang and Nelson (1999) and The Beginning of Chinese Characters, by Nelson, Broadberry and Wang (2001).  Mr Seebach ignores these works, choosing to criticize a work which the authors themselves would probably consider as rather embryonic—a 1979 publication.  The work published since then has been in response to sceptical criticism of that original work.

Note that the authors of these works, as with the original 1979 book referred to, included people who spoke and read Chinese fluently (unlike the critic).  Indeed, Dr Ginger Tong Chock, co-author of God’s Promise to the Chinese, which CMI stocks, received her Ph.D. in Chinese art studies from Stanford University (Chinese art includes writing—Chinese people have traditionally regarded calligraphy as an art form).  Other native-speaking Chinese people have also joined in the studies.  People in Singapore, Taiwan and Hong Kong have been involved in researching this issue and producing articles, books and videos wholly in Chinese, obviously for a Chinese audience.  This is not some sort of cooked-up job by westerners who do not understand Chinese, as our critic implies.

I do not speak much Chinese (unusually, I read more than I speak—possible because written Chinese is ideographic, with the meaning rather than the sound embodied in the characters).  But I have spoken to quite a few groups of Chinese-speaking people about this topic in English, some with translation into Chinese, and in every case the people have received the information with appreciation and with no objections (and this not just out of Chinese politeness, because other things get queried!).

Here the objector refers to the analysis of the Chinese character for ship, ‘chuan’ (船).  The three radicals making up the character have been interpreted as suggesting a vessel (舟) for eight (八) people (口), and since Noah’s Ark was a ship that carried eight people, this could be the origin of the Chinese character. Our critic admits, in his web posting, that his knowledge of written Chinese is incomplete and very rusty. He does not object to the connection of ‘vessel’, because the modern character for boat or vessel is 舟. But in his web posting, he makes of lot of the supposed ignorance of anyone who does not recognize that the radical interpreted as ‘eight’ is not the same (几) as the way ‘eight’ is written in Chinese (八). I asked a Chinese gentleman educated in Taiwan, fluent in spoken (Mandarin) and written Chinese, about this. He said that ‘everyone’ knew that the form of the radical used in the combined character for ship is just a stylized way of writing ‘eight’, and when written by hand, people write it as an eight. Furthermore, if our critic had been careful to read the endnote in the 1979 book, he would have seen a discussion of this, pointing out that the ancient form was clearly an eight. The Japanese (Kanji) rendition of the character in printing preserves the original ‘eight’ form.

In his web posting, the interpretation of 口 as persons is disputed on the basis that the character by itself (only) means mouth or opening in modern dictionaries. However, it does not take much thought to realize that the phrase ‘eight mouths to feed’ means eight people. Although the modern Chinese idiom does not seem to use 口 in precisely this way, it is used in many expressions about speech, and of course speech characterizes people. Furthermore, the earliest forms of writing, the oracle bones, which pre-date Moses, show that the original radical was used in that way—to represent a person. Of course there are other ways to represent a person (just as there are various words for person in English).

Here is an original oracle bone form of the character for ship:   Clearly the interpretation as a vessel (boat) for eight persons (mouths) is very reasonable.  This can be seen in The Beginning of Chinese Characters, by Nelson, Broadberry and Wang (2001, p. 90), citing an original Chinese source.

Our critic picks on a few of these many (‘chock-full’ is accurate) etymologies in his Internet chat group posting, and then proclaims that the whole lot are flawed. As we have shown, it is our critic’s analysis that is flawed, and if these examples are his best efforts at finding fault with the work on Chinese characters, then it shows that the work remains in very good standing (a critic will hardly pick the most robust parts, but the weakest, to attack)—especially when the more recent research on the ancient forms of the characters is factored into the debate.

Now hearsay becomes the basis of the criticism. Again, this is treated in great detail in God’s Promise to the Chinese. No, Shangdi  (上帝) was not invented by missionaries and no, Nelson et al. were not confused about the way it is written in Chinese (as claimed in the author’s web posting).  Having re-read carefully what was written in the 1979 book, I don’t understand the basis of this latter complaint at all.  ShangDi (上帝) basically means ‘supreme sovereign’, and it goes back a long way.  Indeed, the Imperial Palace in Beijing (I have visited there twice) has a temple built in 1530 called the Vault of Heaven.  A tablet on the north wall of this temple reads ‘Heavenly Emperor ShangDi’ (皇天上帝).  This pre-dates at least any Protestant missionaries.

ShangDi goes back much further than this, though.  Here it becomes even more clear that our critic has read very little of the book he criticizes.  It appears that Mr Seebach did not read even up to page 14 of the 139-page book, because here the authors discuss this very topic, showing clearly the antiquity of ShangDi.  The Shu Jing (Book of History) compiled by Confucius (ca. 500 BC) records that Emperor Shun, from the legendary period of five emperors, pre-dating the first (Xia) dynasty (some 4,000 years ago), ‘sacrificed to ShangDi’.  This somewhat pre-dated missionary activity in China !  Also, if our critic had read what he is criticising with a little more care, he would have seen that the authors were pointing out that the Chinese often shortened ShangDi to simply Di (帝 ) but, over time, came to use ‘Heaven’ (天) rather than ShangDi.  In fact, by the time of the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC–AD 24), ShangDi had been all but forgotten, with the intrusion of Buddhism and Taoism. The authors were not at all confused about how ShangDi is rendered in Chinese. It would even seem that the critic has not even read the actual text of the book—he has merely looked at a few of the illustrations and their captions, which are placed in the margins of the book, and maybe a few sentences next to the illustrations.  It would seem to me to be at least polite to read an author’s work properly before criticizing it.

We should also note that the 1979 book being criticized only deals with the modern forms of the characters whereas works published since have involved extensive studies of the most ancient forms of Chinese writing available.  When the ancient forms are studied, the links with Genesis become much clearer; I would even say incontrovertible.  Consideration of the significance of the ‘Border Sacrifice’, performed by emperors annually for some 4,000 years, until the end of dynastic rule and the formation of the first republic in 1911, bolsters this confidence even further (see again God’s Promise to the Chinese [now titled Oracle Bones Speak]).

However, I can say with total certainty that every one of the “etymologies” I’ve seen has been *DEEPLY* flawed. I believe these arguments reflect very badly on creationism; they have been studied a few times that I’m aware of, and everyone ends up coming to the conclusion that the people who put them together were either ignorant of Chinese, or being willfully dishonest. As a Christian, I am inclined to attribute it to well-meaning but misguided efforts to find truth in everything. In the case of the Chinese characters, I think the etymologies have nothing to do with the creation story.

I am not myself a believer in literal creation, …

Jesus believed Genesis was literal history, including the creation of Adam and Eve ‘from the beginning of creation’ (Matthew 19:3–6, Mark 10:6–9) and a global Flood (Luke 17:26–27) — see Jesus and the age of the world, so that puts our critic in a rather invidious position (a Christian by definition is one who believes / obeys / follows Christ).

… but I respect the honest effort you are making to present the arguments for this belief in the best and most honest manner you can. If all creationists were like you, at least the debate would be a serious inquiry into truth.

Thanks.  We are concerned for the truth, as all Christians should be, since it is the truth that sets us free (John 8:32), and Jesus Himself is ‘the truth’ (John 14:6).  One must also wonder what basis Mr Seebach has for his belief that honesty is a Christian virtue, because the only source for this is the Bible, which he disbelieves from the very first verse. To be consistent, perhaps the parts about honesty are also not to be taken ‘literally’.  In the interests of truth, our critic should correct the errors and the libellous accusations that he has made on the infidel internet chat site he referred us to.  These accusations, including suggestions of dishonesty, have been made about Christian scholars in good standing—people who have studied at length and written about how the ancient Chinese writing shows that the founders of China understood the true history of the world as revealed in Genesis, because they, like everyone on Earth, are descendants of Adam and Eve, part of the fallen race of Adam who need a Saviour, the Last Adam, Jesus Christ.

I’m leaving “no” checked for “does your message require a reply”, but I would appreciate one; if you want to see an analysis of this, I posted a thread about it to talk.origins a while back. I know that may not be your favorite site, but I found a good link to the discussion here [deleted because our clearly stated feedback rules do not allow advertising of other web sites — Ed.]

As can be seen, we have done even better, in giving Mr Seebach a public reply, and shown that his analysis, like almost everything else on that essentially atheistic website, is highly unreliable.

Dr Don Batten

For further correspondence on this issue, see: CMI still misrepresents ancient Chinese language?


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