Chinese Characters—Why Are They Written That Way?
THE little boy sitting at the desk is the very image of concentration. His left hand is holding down a sheet of rice paper with large grids printed on it. His head is cocked slightly to the left, and his eyes are focused on the tip of a brush with a slender bamboo shaft, held vertically in his right hand. Moving the brush in a slow and controlled motion, punctuated by an occasional dip of the brush in an inkpot, he is painstakingly trying to learn how to write—Chinese.
What comes out on the paper may look impossibly complicated and hopelessly confusing to the Western eye. Yet, by endless practice and repetition the little boy, like millions of other young pupils in China, is being taught, in perhaps the only practical way, the rudiments of written Chinese.
A Record of Ideas
What sets Chinese apart from most other languages is the fact that it does not have an alphabet. Because of this, Chinese characters are not written by simply spelling out the sounds with letters, as one does in English or in other alphabetic languages. Basically, written Chinese is not a record of spoken sounds; rather, it is a record of ideas.
In the parlance of the linguists, written Chinese is ideographic writing, or idea writing. Each word or character, by its shape and appearance, conveys to the reader a certain idea. If the idea is a simple one, the character may just be a simple picture of it. The linguists call this type of character pictographic, or picture writing. They include words for common objects that are familiar in everyday life, such as
SUN MOON TREE MAN MOUTH [Artwork—Chinese characters]
Looking at the words above, you may or may not recognize them as pictures. This is because through the years, these picture words have gone through successive stages of simplification to make them easier to write. But if you were to examine the older versions of these words, the picture element is quite apparent. In the accompanying chart, you will see the changes some characters have gone through, from the purely pictorial characters at the left to the stylized form in use today.
Obviously, a system of writing made up of picture words alone would be very limited because there are only so many ideas that can be depicted by simple pictures. Thus, for more complicated and abstract ideas, the characters are usually made up of several of the simple picture words, put together in such a way that people, out of their common experience, can recognize the ideas. For example, the “sun” and “moon” together means “bright,” the “man” leaning against the “tree” means “rest.”
SUN + MOON = BRIGHT [Artwork—Chinese characters]
MAN + TREE = REST [Artwork—Chinese characters]
It is perhaps easy to see why these two characters are formed in those particular ways. In the simpler way of life in times past, there was probably nothing brighter than the sun or the moon, and a brief pause under a tree would be most restful.
Some Unusual Ideas
There are, however, some words that appear to have the most unusual stories behind them, stories that seem totally unrelated to the common, everyday experience. Take, for instance, the character for “ship.” This is surely not a particularly complicated idea to express. Yet, surprisingly, the character is quite complex. It is made up of three simple characters:
VESSEL + EIGHT + MOUTH = SHIP [Artwork—Chinese characters]
The third part, “mouth,” is a very common character that can also mean “people,” much as it does in the English expression “another mouth to feed.” So the character for “ship” is derived from the idea of “eight persons in a vessel.” Curious, is it not? Where did such an idea come from?
Consider another example. The character for “greed” or “greedy” is written with two “tree” characters above the character for “woman” or “female.”
TREE + TREE + WOMAN = GREED [Artwork—Chinese characters]
The top part of the word, two trees side by side, is itself the character for “forest.” Nevertheless, pictorially, the entire character seems to represent a woman in front of, or perhaps looking up to, two trees. Why would the idea of “greed” be represented this way?
Many other characters can be analyzed with similar results. They tell fascinating stories that appear to be totally unrelated to the common, daily experiences of the people. They seem to reveal a background or source of ideas quite different from what most people, especially the Chinese themselves, would consider typical. Where did such ideas come from?
A Possible Connection?
If you are at all acquainted with the Bible, you might have noticed something familiar in the story behind the character for “ship.” Do you not agree that there is a striking resemblance to the Bible account about Noah and his family, a total of eight persons, surviving the Flood in the ark?—Genesis 7:1-24.
What about the idea behind the character for “greed”? Well, you may recall the Bible’s description of the garden of Eden, in which two trees were mentioned specifically by name: “The tree of life in the middle of the garden and the tree of the knowledge of good and bad.” (Genesis 2:9) Was it not Eve’s inordinate desire for the fruit of one of those trees that eventually led to mankind’s downfall?
Are these mere coincidences, or is there more to it? In a book entitled Discovery of Genesis, the coauthors, C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson, analyzed dozens of ideographic Chinese characters, including the two mentioned above, and observed that “the characters when broken down into component parts time and again reflect elements of the story of God and man recorded in the early chapters of Genesis.”
However, you may wonder, what connection could there possibly be between the Bible and ancient Chinese writing? In fact, it would seem difficult to think of anything that could be farther removed from the Bible than the language of the mysterious Orientals. But an objective consideration and comparison of what is recorded in the Bible and what is known from established history will help us to see that such a tie is not unreasonable.
Clue From the Bible
Historians have long pointed to the plains of Mesopotamia as the original home of civilization and language. This, in fact, is in full agreement with what is recorded in the Bible. The book of Genesis, in chapter 11, describes an event that took place in the land of Shinar, in Mesopotamia, which provides the needed clue to our investigation.
“All the earth continued to be of one language and of one set of words,” says Genesis 11:1. The unity, however, was misused by the people in defiance of God’s purpose for them. “They now said: ‘Come on! Let us build ourselves a city and also a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a celebrated name for ourselves, for fear we may be scattered over all the surface of the earth.’”—Genesis 11:4.
The tower, of course, was the infamous Tower of Babel. Thus, it was in the land of Shinar in Mesopotamia that God confused man’s language. “That is why its name was called Babel, because there Jehovah had confused the language of all the earth, and Jehovah had scattered them from there over all the surface of the earth.”—Genesis 11:9.
This Biblical account, of course, is not readily accepted by the scientific community. As far as the latter is concerned, there is really no agreement on how the language of China developed. And opinions among scholars are divided as to whether Chinese writing developed in China or it was imported, at least initially.
For example, I. J. Gelb in his book A Study of Writing states: “The direct derivation of the Chinese writing from Mesopotamia, suggested by some scholars on the basis of formal comparisons of Chinese and Mesopotamian signs, has never been proved by rigorous scientific method.” Similarly, David Diringer wrote in his book The Alphabet: “The attempt of some scholars to prove the Sumerian origin of the primeval writing of China, implies at least great exaggerations.”
What must be noted, however, is that the Bible does not say that all the other languages developed or derived from the “one language and one set of words” used by the people there at Shinar. What is indicated is that the languages resulting from the confusion were so different from and unrelated to one another that the people had to abandon the construction project and move out “over all the surface of the earth” because they could no longer understand or communicate with one another.
Evidently what happened was that the confusion process obliterated the original language patterns in the minds of the people and replaced them with new ones. Thus the new languages that they spoke were completely different from what they had known before. These were not offshoots or spin-offs of the original “one language.”
The point to bear in mind, however, is that although their language patterns were changed, evidently their thoughts and memories were not. Their experiences, traditions, fears, loves, feelings and emotions remained. These they carried with them wherever they went, and they had a profound influence on the religions, cultures and languages that developed in far-flung corners of the earth. In the case of the Chinese, such memories apparently cropped up also in their pictographic and ideographic characters.
It is not surprising, therefore, that Diringer, quoted above, after stating his objection to the theory that Chinese writing was derived directly from Sumerian writing, conceded that “the general conception of writing might perhaps be borrowed, directly or indirectly, from the Sumerians.”
What May We Conclude?
Our brief examination of the ideas behind the ideographic Chinese characters brings to the fore the question of their source. As we have seen, scholars find it difficult to accept the proposition that Chinese writing is derived from an outside source. But their objection is based on the lack of formal or outward similarity. Until more archaeological evidence is available, the issue may remain unresolved.
On the other hand, we have noted that the similarity between the thoughts behind many of the Chinese characters and the Bible record of man’s early history is nothing less than remarkable. Although the evidence is only circumstantial, it is, nonetheless, fascinating to think that there is a possibility that the Chinese calligraphy practiced by our young student could have a basis in the ideas brought over from Shinar as a result of the confusion and dispersion at the Tower of Babel.
[Chart on page 22]
(For fully formatted text, see publication.)
Development of some Chinese characters over the centuries