Anyone with a mild interest in both the Bible and the Chinese language and characters might want to check out C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson’s “The Discovery of Genesis.” This curious but thought-provoking book attempts to explain the possible relationship between the two.
“The Discovery of Genesis” blends the origins and structure of Chinese characters with the story of the Bible, or at least the story of the Bible from the beginning up until the time the Tower of Babel was constructed.
This curiosity was printed in 1979, which could now be considered almost a millennia ago. Outside of its writing style and references to scientific and architectural discoveries that were new at that time (and alas, some of which have been forgotten), the book serves as a reminder of when China was just opening up to the West, and the world was coming to explore a civilization that had been closed off for decades under Communist rule.
From a Christian Perspective
This book could not have come about without the efforts of Ms. Nelson, a Christian from the United States, having met Mr. Kang, a Christian pastor, who was trying to spread Christianity in China. Together they explore Chinese characters and how their origin could be related to historic stories in the Bible.
The authors start with a discussion on the evolution of Chinese history, particularly the early Chinese belief in a Supreme Creator (Shang Di), which parallels that of Christian theology and the belief in a single god, a single creator. The authors discuss how the Chinese people went from believing in Shang Di until Daoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism, with their polytheistic faiths and beliefs in a pantheon of gods, emerged in the region.
It is a good summary of the Bible, coupled with the Chinese characters and their evolution, and explains how, quite possibly, the Chinese characters may have been influenced by the humankind’s history as described in the Bible. I say “may” have been influenced, because some of the interpretations of Chinese characters seem a bit of a stretch.
Nevertheless, reading this book with an open mind did jog my memory of the early parts of the Bible as well as the origin of Chinese characters. And I must say that some of the Chinese characters do seem to be based on a history that was semi-biblical. For example, there’s the story of the Great Flood and Noah’s Ark. But then again, China had its own story of the Great Flood, the one that was quelled by Da Yu (Emperor Yu the Great), who ushered in China’s oldest dynasty, the Xia dynasty.
In this regard, the book misses a reference to this great emperor who might have been Noah’s contemporary. In Chinese history, Da Yu is referred to as “Tamer of the Flood” and is seen as a demi-god. The authors may have been unaware of Emperor Yu the Great’s legacy at the time this book was written.
Chapter 1 serves as a sampling for the rest of the book. For example, did you know that the Chinese character for “boat” could be made up of the base characters for 8 and the word “flood”? Boat and flood make sense … but why the character 8? This, an example of instances I find far-fetched, the authors suggest, might be the number of Noah’s family who boarded the Ark! (Noah, his wife, three sons and their daughters, eight in total.)
Chapter 2 summarizes a bit of China’s history, especially of the history of its characters. The authors emphasize that the Chinese writing system that we know today originated around 2500 B.C. and has been passed down uninterrupted for 4,500 years. This uninterrupted legacy can only be described as nothing short of divine providence.
Chapter 3 continues the history lesson for us, and a few things stood out to me in this chapter. First, the Chinese term for “culture” or “civilization,” “wen hua,” literally means “the transforming influence of writing”? This, the authors postulate, might mean that culture and civilization are transformed by writing, or specifically that the Chinese civilization has been transformed and influenced by its writing style.
Second, the authors call the Tang dynasty the “then-greatest civilization in the world.” While few might dispute this opinion today, it is remarkable that the authors were able to deduce this when they wrote the book.
Finally, in Chapter 3, state a startling idea: In essence, the authors believe that the origin of the Chinese characters must be divine or at least divinely influenced, from their perspective influenced by the divine history put forth in the Bible. As such, the authors bemoan the fact that the traditional Chinese language was being destroyed by the Chinese Communist Party under the guise of “simplification.” In that, I agree. What a pity that the beautiful Chinese language with its ancient history was warped under the current regime. Luckily, it still exists in its traditional form in Taiwan and elsewhere, so we are blessed to have the original characters still with us.
The rest of the chapters in the book (4 to 10) can best be summarized as a quick summary of the evolution and origin of Chinese characters, with some interpretation of their Biblical basis. More specifically, chapters 4 to 6 deals with the story of Creation, Adam and Eve, the Garden and the forbidden fruit. Chapters 7 and 8 deal with the first humans’ progeny and the story of Cain and Abel and their descendants. Chapter 9 tells the story of the flood and Noah’s ark. Chapter 10, the last chapter, deals with the Tower of Babel, and concludes that this must be the time when the original Chinese people left the Tower of Babel and marched Eastwards to the land of China, where they preserved their history (from the events of the Bible), invented Chinese characters, and passed them down to posterity.
A short epilogue quotes sections of Revelations, and a small number of relevant Chinese characters are touched upon, but without the same historic context as in previous chapters.
As a summary, this is a fascinating book for anyone who is interested in the contents of the Bible and Chinese characters. Although the style of writing is quaint and lacks archeological and historic findings, we can attribute some of these problems to the difficulty for a Western author in the 1970s to access China, still closed to the outside world.
A reader fond of Eastern religions such as Buddhism and Daoism may find the authors’ attitude towards these religions somewhat offensive, but luckily, these are few.
I did regret that while the Chinese characters and their origins are thoroughly covered, the authors offer no Romanization to actually pronounce the characters. The authors likely had no interest in conveying the sound of the wonderful Chinese language, believing that the origin story might suffice.