Genesis and Chinese Characters

Teal Rowe writes:
What do the individual radicals in the character “ship” mean? And if you know, could you share with me this information with respect to the ancient Chinese character for ship. For this, I would be ever so grateful. If this is out of the realm of your study, perhaps you would be good enough to pass me along to someone who can answer this question.
Genesis and Chinese Characters

Edward: The briefest and most direct response on the web to your question is located here, at Mark Isaakʼs online Index to Creationist Claims.

I am supposing that you have already read my online article on the question of whether Chinese characters illustrate stories found in Genesis

I also am supposing that you have read the negative reviews written by Christians of Nelsonʼs first book, The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language, at amazon.com.

Seebs or Seebach seebs@plethora.net is the same person who sent Answers in Genesis a letter on the Chinese character question, and Answers in Genesis wrote an article in reply. However, to understand Seebs side of the story read his debate at christianforums.com concerning about whether or not the “ancient meaning” of a particular Chinese symbol was “8.” Be sure to read the entire thread, because new information about the ancient meaning of that Chinese symbol is added as the thread progresses.

Another email that Seebs sent to christian forums read:
I speak and read Chinese, and Iʼve checked my notes with a bunch of other people who speak Chinese. The “Bible-like” etymologies provided by Nelson are just plain wrong, in the following ways:
1. They always assume that thereʼs no “sound” radical in a character; this is very rarely the case in Chinese, so at least one of the “meanings” is being added.
2. They subdivide radicals into components as if they were other radicals, which is not how Chinese written language works. (e.g., given a bull, they separated it into “life” and “dirt”, but thatʼs not how that radical works.)
3. Sometimes, theyʼre just plain wrong; in the famous 8-people-boat, the thing they say is an eight isnʼt an eight, and the thing they say is “people” isnʼt that either.
The etymologies are plausible enough to fool someone who doesnʼt know anything about Chinese etymology or linguistics. However, even casual study by an honest party quickly reveals them to be nonsense.
Even apart from all of that, the most serious problem is simply that thereʼs a huge amount of hand-waving and “obviously this means…” going on. When thereʼs a mouth/breath symbol in the word for create, it takes a bit of running around to say “breath (from God)”. The idea that the alleged breath comes from God (if indeed thatʼs the meaning of that part, which is hardly guaranteed in Chinese characters) is totally unsupported by the characters.
If you start by assuming that Genesis is literally true, you can find a few dozen, out of fifty thousand, Chinese characters for which you can compose stories that sound similar to Genesis.
This is not particularly informative. You can make up stories for any language. The “Chinese etymology” argument has all the argumentative power of saying that, since Eden is an anagram for “need”, it proves that we all “need” to be with God.
Whether the conclusion is true or not, the argument is totally uninformative. I recommend you pick up a basic linguistics text and study how Chinese writing *actually* came to be, or what the early creation stories were actually like.
Seebʼs summation today at his blog.


Mike Wright is another fellow who reads and translates Chinese and who has investigated Nelsonʼs claims and written two reviews of Nelsonʼs books at amazon.com:
The kinds of analysis given in this book (Nelsonʼs first book) are totally without foundation.
The most critical point about this particular book is that the analysis is based on modern Kaishu forms, which are often totally different from the original forms, so that the elements into which the characters are analyzed do not even exist in the original forms. Typical examples are “huo3” (“fire”), “rou4” (“meat”), and “yu3” (“rain”).
When this was pointed out to Nelson after the publication of this book, she then came out with “Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldnʼt Solve”, scrapping most of her previous contentions and producing new ones, using older character forms as a basis. That alone shows that this book is all wrong. (Itʼs interesting that she still permits it to be sold, even knowing that it is full of errors.)

However, this book and the second one share another set of problems. Nelson and her co-authors seem to have no idea that the origins of specific Chinese characters have been well understood for quite some time. They donʼt even recognize that the vast majority of characters are not simple indicative or compound indicative forms, as they would have us believe, but are semantic-phonetic compounds. They consistently miss this well-know point. It is obvious that they have never read a single work on this subject, but have simply made up their own stories out of whole cloth. This is nothing more than a work of imaginative fiction.
They also donʼt realize that many characters are known to be phonetic loans. For example, “lai2” (“to come”) was originally a character for “barley” or some related grain, also pronounced “lai2”. For a while, the same form was used for both. Later on, the “grass” radical was added to the “barley” character to distinguish it. This becomes quite obvious when you compare the character for “barley” with the character for “wheat” (“mai4”), as they have many elements in common. It is simply ridiculous to analyze the character as two people (presumably Adam and Eve) coming from behind a tree. They even analyze the hook at the bottom of the vertical center stroke as “possibly representing a foot…to indicate movement”. They didnʼt even know that the hook is a modern innovation in the brush-written form, and does not even appear in older forms. Itʼs really sad to see people taken in by such nonsensical fantasies.

A final problem with both books is that many of the characters that they analyze did not even exist in the beginning stages of the writing system, which is what these books are trying to deal with. That is, there are no examples of the existence of these characters among the Shang period oracle bone characters--only about 1000 of which had even been deciphered at the time of publication.

If you want to know something about how Chinese characters are really composed, I suggest starting with “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy”, by John DeFrancis. If you want to know more about Chinese oracle bone characters, try “Sources of Shang History” (pretty expensive), by David N. Keightley. A cheaper, but less reliable, source is “The Composition of Common Chinese Characters: An Illustrated Account”, from Peking University Press. Even Wiegerʼs “Chinese Characters: Their origin, etymology, history, classification, and signification,” is light years ahead of Nelsonʼs attempts.

The kinds of analysis given in this book are totally without foundation. Ethel Nelsonʼs previous book on this subject, “The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Languages” was based on modern Kaishu forms, which are often totally different from the original forms, so that the elements into which the characters were analyzed did not even exist in the original forms.

When this was pointed out to Nelson after the publication of that book, she then came out with this one, scrapping most of her previous contentions and producing new ones, using older character forms as a basis. However, the authors are careful to pick and choose forms that support their analysis, even if other forms are far more common. You can find lots of samples of oracle bone characters on the Web. See for yourself. In fact, it appears that some may be made up on the basis of related forms, as I canʼt find any examples of them.

Also, this book and the previous one share another set of problems. Nelson and her co-authors seem to have no idea that the origins of specific Chinese characters have been well understood for quite some time. They donʼt even recognize that the vast majority of characters are not simple indicative or compound indicative forms, as they would have us believe, but are semantic-phonetic compounds. They consistently miss this well-know point. It is obvious that they have never read a single work on this subject, but have simply made up their own stories out of whole cloth. This is nothing more than a work of imaginative fiction.

They also donʼt realize that many characters are known to be phonetic loans. For example, “lai2” (“to come”) was originally a character for “barley” or some related grain, also pronounced “lai2”. For a while, the same form was used for both. Later on, the “grass” radical was added to the “barley” character to distinguish it. This becomes quite obvious when you compare the character for “barley” with the character for “wheat” (“mai4”), as they have many elements in common. It is simply ridiculous to analyze the character as two people (presumably Adam and Eve) coming from behind a tree. They even analyze the hook at the bottom of the vertical center stroke as “possibly representing a foot…to indicate movement”. They didnʼt even know that the hook is a modern innovation in the brush-written form, and does not even appear in older forms. Itʼs really sad to see people taken in by such nonsensical fantasies.

Itʼs quite amusing to see how Nelson confidently puts forth one analysis of a particular character, like the one for “fire”, in the first book, and then produces an equally confident explanation of the same character in the second book that completely contradicts the first one. The fact is that the second analysis is just as baseless as the first.

A final problem with both books is that many of the characters that they analyze did not even exist in the beginning stages of the writing system, which is what these books are trying to deal with. That is, there are no examples of the existence of these characters among the Shang period oracle bone characters--only about 1000 of which had even been deciphered at the time of publication.

If you want to know something about how Chinese characters are really composed, I suggest starting with “The Chinese Language: Fact and Fantasy”, by John DeFrancis. If you want to know more about Chinese oracle bone characters, try “Sources of Shang History” (pretty expensive), by David N. Keightley. A cheaper, but less reliable, source is “The Composition of Common Chinese Characters: An Illustrated Account”, from Peking University Press. Even Wiegerʼs “Chinese Characters: Their origin, etymology, history, classification, and signification.” is light years ahead of Nelsonʼs attempts. (Parts of this were simply copied word-for-word from my review of Nelsonʼs first book.)


Mike introduced me to a professional Chinese etymologist who had written Nelson and his publisher years ago, warning them against publishing their first book on the subject of “Genesis” being “discovered” in Chinese characters, which the etymologist told the publisher, was nonsense. Apparently the publisher is the one who had sought out the Chinese etymologist to review the book before it was published. I have scanned copies of the etymologistʼs letter in my email files at home.
Also, hereʼs some handy information to keep around when doing web searches:

How to Resurrect Information at Deceased Web Site Addresses

If any web site addresses mentioned in this book no longer function, do not despair. Go to any major online search engine and type “Way Back Machine” in the search box (keep the quotation marks around “Way Back Machine” for an exact match if you use the google search engine). The Way Back Machine stores written text from old websites, and once there, you need only type (or paste) the address of the old website you are looking for into the Way Back Machineʼs search box. The Way Back Machine even stores snapshots of each website taken over a period of years so people can see how each site has changed over time.

For websites that are recently deceased, say in the last six months to a year, you can search for them via the author and title of the original quotation, or via an exact match of a particular sentence from the quotation (place quotation marks around the sentence if searching for an exact match via the google search engine). Once you discover the website listed on a page of google “hits,” look for the word “cache” at the end of the website address, and click on that word. The “cached” version of the website is a copy that google preserves for several months after the original site vanishes. For sites that vanished over a year ago, one should use the Way Back Machine (see previous paragraph).

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