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God's Promise to the Chinese


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Faith of Our Fathers: God in Ancient China
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CMI still misrepresents ancient Chinese language?

Feedback 23 December 2002

Editor’s note: the Chinese characters might not display on older operating systems that do not have Unicode fonts installed.

Letter to Editor

I have just read Dr Don Batten reply to CMI misrepresents ancient Chinese language?. As a Chinese who can speak, read and write our language more so than Dr Batten, I feel very much offended by the many false uses of our language to support his ideas. I can easily dispute almost all of his points, even not as a professional linguist.

‘chuan’ (船) is NOT composed of 3 components, but 2. On the left, (舟) represents a boat. On the right, the component is used for the ancient sound of the word which, as also used in 鉛 (lead), 沿 (along). It doesn’t mean there are eight mouths in every piece of lead. Phonetic combinations another way Chinese characters were developed, not only symbolic combination. Even primary students know this. If Dr Batten is not familiar with this concept, I suggest him to learn more before making these bold but flawed conclusions.

ShangDi (上帝) never existed as a single character, but only as a combination word of 2 characters, which indicates

  1. It’s a relatively new vocabulary compared to single character words
  2. It never existed in the first set of Chinese vocabulary which consisted of mostly single character words.

If the idea of ShangDi (上帝) was so profound, it would not exist as a combination word, but a single character, just like (人) ‘man’ (馬) ‘horse’ or (犬) ‘dog’.

With all his respect, Dr Batten also did not understand the complexity of the more modern Chinese vocabulary constructions. The example he used, (皇天上帝), was wrongly interpreted as ‘Heavenly Emperor ShangDi’. There are four characters in this word. Only (帝) ‘Emperor’ is the true noun here, (皇) ‘king’ (天) ‘sky’ and (上) ‘above’ are all used to augment the meaning of (帝). Even the character (帝) did not have a heavenly origin. (皇) and (帝) actually refers to the ancient Chinese legend of a few heroic leaders. The First Emperor wanted a title superior than these leaders, that’s why he started to use the official word (皇帝) ‘Emperor’, which was then often shorted to (帝). I hope it is now clear that, (上帝) does not stand alone as ‘ShangDi’ in this word. To verify this simple point, I would kindly recommend Dr Batten to consult any Chinese teacher who only needs to know even the basic Chinese history.

I respect Christianity as much as every religion, but publishing such an unsubstantiated article is simply unprofessional, if not unscientific. I am concerned by the accuracy or the lack of accuracy of the article if articles like this are to be read by the many keen Christians who do not know enough about Chinese. Actually, if possible, I would like to ask Dr Batten the exact number of Chinese he has consulted before he published this article on the Internet. I am disappointed that, if he really did consult enough people, no one actually pointed out these simple mistakes to him.

Citing literatures can be helpful in putting arguments forward, but biased and selective citations make arguments hollow, especially when one does not have enough factual knowledge on the topic. A language can never be analysed separately from the people’s history and culture. As far as I know, Chinese culture and history simply did not contain the Bible. Dr Batten may have other exciting news in the future. Before then, I would strongly recommend him to spend more time and effort to study our culture and history first.


Dear Mr Lee (pseudonym),
Please note my comments inserted below.

Letter to Editor

I have just read Dr Don Batten reply to ‘CMI misrepresents ancient Chinese language?’ As a Chinese who can speak, read and write our language more so than Dr Batten, I feel very much offended by the many false uses of our language to support his ideas. I can easily dispute almost all of his points, even not as a professional linguist.

First, they are not my ideas. I have never claimed that I know much about the Chinese language, although I am very interested in all things Chinese (I would consider myself a sinophile). The ideas originated from the studies of Chinese scholars, as was pointed out in the posting that this letter refers to [above]. This is not some case of an ignorant westerner (me) misusing Chinese language to further some ‘western agenda’, as seems to be implied in this letter.

‘chuan’ (船) is not composed of 3 components, but 2. On the left, (舟) represents a boat. On the right, the component is used for the ancient sound of the word which, as also used in 鉛 (lead), 沿 (along). It doesn’t mean there are eight mouths in every piece of lead. Phonetic combination is another way Chinese characters were developed, not only symbolic combination. Even primary students know this. If Dr Batten is not familiar with this concept, I suggest him to learn more before making these bold but flawed conclusions.

Hmmm. This depends on the history of the development of the Chinese language (a 4,000 year history). The works referred to (please read them; experts in Chinese language have been involved in the research) argue that the original Chinese writing was ideographic, as revealed on the oracle bones, and that the use of some of the radicals or combinations of radicals for phonetic purposes came later. You are correct that in the modern understanding of Chinese the character for ship is comprised of two parts: the one on the left having a semantic (meaning) purpose and the combination of two radicals on the right having a phonetic purpose (a phoneme). But as I have already made plain, the analysis of Chinese writing is not based on modern characters, but on the oldest form of Chinese writing: the oracle bone scripts.

How did the phonetic concept develop? It seems clear that the semantic came first. Note that the phoneme on the right hand side of 船 is composed of two radicals that in other contexts have the meanings suggested. If the original writing involved phonemes, they would not be expected to be composed of semantic radicals (the symbols in a phonetic writing system like English have no apparent meaning; they are just symbols). Suppose that the character for ship preceded the ones for ‘lead’ (鉛) and ‘along’ (沿). Between the invention of the ship character and the other two, the phonetic concept developed and the semantic meaning of many radicals had become obscured. The right-hand sides of characters came to frequently have a phonetic association, so that if new characters were invented, they could use the right-hand side of a well-known existing character to hint at the sound. If ‘ship’ was already in use and ‘lead’ and ‘along’ had a similar sound, it could explain how the characters for these were created. It explains why the same semantic connotations as in the original character would not apply to the newer characters. So your correct understanding of modern Chinese does not contradict what has been written on the possible origin of the character for ship. Of course the role of the phonetic parts of the characters (phonemes) has been obscured by time also: in Mandarin the sounds of ‘ship’ (chuán, rising tone), ‘lead’ (qian, high tone) and ‘along’ (yán, rising tone) are quite different today, so the phonetic component is not much help in determining how to say the word. In Cantonese the sounds are much more alike and could reflect an earlier commonality of pronunciation. But it’s anybody’s guess as to what the original sounds were.

ShangDi (上帝) never existed as a single character, but only as a combination word of 2 characters, which indicates

  1. It’s a relatively new vocabulary compared to single character words
  2. It never existed in the first set of Chinese vocabulary which consisted of mostly single character words.

If the idea of ShangDi (上帝) was so profound, it would not exist as a combination word, but a single character, just like (人) 'man' (馬) 'horse' or (犬) 'dog'.

Indeed, as explained in the book referred to, God’s Promise to the Chinese, which you apparently have not read, the original oracle bone character for God was indeed just 帝 (God). It still means ‘the Supreme Being’ in modern Chinese (A Chinese-English Dictionary, 1979, published by the PRC government). ‘Shang’ (上), above, was probably added later to distinguish the God above from other ‘gods’ that came into the picture as emperors claimed the title 帝 (see below) and people moved away from faith in the Creator to worshipping other ‘gods’, such as ancestors (see Romans 1:20–23).

With all his respect, Dr Batten also did not understand the complexity of the more modern Chinese vocabulary constructions. The example he used, (皇天上帝), was wrongly interpreted as ‘Heavenly Emperor ShangDi’. There are four characters in this word. Only (帝) ‘Emperor’ is the true noun here, (皇) ‘king’ (天) ‘sky’ and (上) ‘above’ are all used to augment the meaning of (帝). Even the character (帝) did not have a heavenly origin. (皇) and (帝) actually refers to the ancient Chinese legend of a few heroic leaders. The First Emperor wanted a title superior than these leaders, that’s why he started to use the official word (皇帝) ‘Emperor’, which was then often shorted to (帝). I hope it is now clear that, (上帝) does not stand alone as ‘ShangDi’ in this word.To verify this simple point, I would kindly recommend Dr Batten to consult any Chinese teacher who only needs to know even the basic Chinese history.

Mr Lee’s last sentence actually fingers the problem: that many teachers have only a ‘basic’ knowledge of Chinese history. In fact teachers educated in modern China have double trouble in understanding the real history of China. Firstly, the history has been re-worked to make it compatible with political ideology. For example, students are taught that Isaac Newton, probably the greatest scientist of all time, only became interested in ‘religion’ when he got old and senile. This is a completely wrong. Furthermore, how many students know that Sun Yat Sen, the father of modern China, was motivated by a strong Christian faith? These are just two items from modern history that have been distorted. Secondly, because generations of people now only know the simplified script, they are cut off from reading the Chinese classics, which are written in the traditional script (which is still learned in Taiwan, Hong Kong and to some extent Japan).

Actually two people educated in traditional Chinese, one in Taiwan and the other in Hong Kong, were asked about this translation and both concurred that it was correct (one man was consultant to a major translation project, checking the correctness of the Chinese). It seems to me that Mr Lee’s translation is rather tautologous, which suggests that it is not right. For example, if 帝 just means ‘emperor’ and 皇 means ‘king’, one word or the other is superfluous. Furthermore, who was the emperor praying to in this ‘hall of prayer for good harvests’; himself? I note that Mr Lee has not provided a translation of the sign, he has just criticized the one I provided. According to the simplistic meanings given to each character by Mr Lee, does it mean, ‘King(ly) sky above emperor’?? Furthermore, the character he has chosen to translate as ‘sky’ (天) also means ‘heaven’, which any Chinese dictionary will reveal, including those printed in China. Mr Lee avoids acknowledging this. In fact, 天 is still used as a euphemism for God, albeit in a fatalistic sense usually, again as a dictionary will show. That the word has the usual meaning of ‘sky’ now is beside the point. A scholar in ancient China wrote:

‘The great Tian (天) gave this middle kingdom with its peoples and territories to the former kings’ (James Legge, The Chinese Classics, Vol. III The Shu Jing (Taipei, SMC Publ. Inc., 1983) Part V, Book 11, para 6, p. 418).

And much other documentation from the ancient scholars such as Confucius and Lao Zi shows that 天 meant far more than just sky.

Mr Lee says that 帝 (di) does not have a heavenly origin, but is just a title claimed by a ruler. It is true that some emperors did claim this title. But why would a ruler claim this title? Simply because it is the title of the Creator himself and the highest title one could claim! The Roman emperors did the same, but instead of lifting their own status, they merely devalued the word for ‘God’. The addition of 上 (above) to 帝 probably arose to distinguish the Creator from any earthly ‘god’, such as an emperor.

I respect Christianity as much as every religion,

But all religions are not equal. Do you respect animistic religions that involve cannibalism as part of their beliefs? Or the Hindu practice of widow burning or temple prostitution? Or the religion of Baal with its child sacrifices? Or a religion that promises heavenly rewards for people who kill those who refuse to convert at the point of a sword? Different religions have contradictory claims about reality, so they cannot all be true or worthy of ‘respect’. And respecting ‘every religion’ is not going to do you much good when you are held to account by your Creator at the judgment to come. If you have not put your trust in the Saviour provided by your Creator, then you will suffer God’s punishment for your sins. The ‘border sacrifice’ performed by the Emperor in China for 4,000 years until 1911 involved the Emperor asking Di (帝), the Creator of all, for forgiveness for his sins and the sins of the people and he also asked God to bless their crops and the wombs of their women. The inscription translated above is on one of the halls in the Altar of Heaven complex where this sacrifice and prayer were offered by the emperor. Clearly the emperor was not praying to himself! But like the emperor, you, Mr Lee, need to recognize your need for forgiveness from your Creator.

but publishing such an unsubstantiated article is simply unprofessional, if not unscientific.

I think the above response shows that the article is not ‘unprofessional’ and that if Mr Lee and other skeptics would bother to read the material published on this they might not be so prone to launch into condescending criticisms. I don’t think science has anything to do with it, since this is a matter of history, which is not open to testing with experiments.

I am concerned by the accuracy or the lack of accuracy of the article if articles like this are to be read by the many keen Christians who do not know enough about Chinese. Actually, if possible, I would like to ask Dr Batten the exact number of Chinese he has consulted before he published this article on the Internet. I am disappointed that, if he really did consult enough people, no one actually pointed out these simple mistakes to him.

As pointed out above, these are not my ideas. They come from a heritage of scholarship that was initiated by Chinese scholars—and today Chinese scholars are involved in further studies. Furthermore, many people born and bred with Chinese as their mother tongue (in China, Taiwan, Singapore) are studying and writing about this evidence from ancient China that the founders of this great country had intimate knowledge of the God of the Bible, the Creator. This knowledge has been obscured over the millennia, but it is clearly recorded in the ancient writings and in the words of the Border Sacrifice and is still present in the semantic content of the radicals used to write Chinese today (often even in the simplified script).

Citing literatures can be helpful in putting arguments forward, but biased and selective citations make arguments hollow, especially when one does not have enough factual knowledge on the topic. A language can never be analysed separately from the people’s history and culture.

Correct, and it has not been.

As far as I know, Chinese culture and history simply did not contain the Bible. Dr Batten may have other exciting news in the future. Before then, I would strongly recommend him to spend more time and effort to study our culture and history first.

I suggest Mr Lee might start by actually reading some of the recommended material. God’s Promise to the Chinese is available in English, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese (the latter with a different title) There is also another very good book on the subject by different (Chinese) authors called Faith of Our Fathers: God in ancient China]. The web articles are merely extracts of very small parts of the whole story. Mr Seebach also launched into denunciations without reading the sources recommended.

Please, Mr Lee, and any other would-be critics, read the sources and interact with the authors of the sources, if you still find fault. If you are open to the truth, I believe you will be convinced, as have many others who were initially sceptical.

Yours sincerely,

Don Batten

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


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