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I came across this interesting article which attempts to support the Christian Genesis story by showing the meaning of some ancient Chinese characters. I would like to verify the meaning of these characters and their use*.

Supposedly, the characters are based on the Oracle Bone scripts which I think are the oldest known Chinese manuscripts. Since this would place them at about 3000 years old it is likely that if these characters are still in use today their meanings have changed some or completely.

I am not interested in opinions on whether these characters lend credence to the Genesis story. I am interested only in the meaning of the characters for the time frame suggested.

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What is the actual question? Yes, the oracle bone script existed. Many of the characters are still in use, although obviously with wildly different pronunciations, graphical forms, and meanings. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 18 '13 at 0:19
    
Those characters are based on the Regular Script (楷书) which is about 2000 years old. –  杨以轩 Jun 18 '13 at 2:32
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+1 for getting to the bottom. It is annoying to see false facts used as supportive materials. –  NS.X. Jun 18 '13 at 22:58
    
@NS.X. Thank you. It is very interesting. Almost enough to convince me to take up Chinese. I originally posted on Skeptics because I didn't know Chinese.SE existed (but also because it annoys them when you post religious things, lol). But, yes, you should always verify facts especially if you intend to use them in an argument. –  fredsbend Jun 18 '13 at 23:12

2 Answers 2

up vote 8 down vote accepted

Most characters are composed of a phonetic and a semantic component.

The phonetic component is a character with a similar pronunciation (...or at least the pronunciation was similar at the time the character was created). The semantic component (or signific) indicates the meaning, although usually very vaguely (again, meanings--like pronunciations--change over time). For more info, see the wiki article.

Classic example:

妈 (mā, mother) = 女 (nǚ, woman) + 马 (mǎ, horse)

The "horse" component is purely phonetic (and a relatively good phonetic too!), and the "woman" component hints as to the meaning.

The author of the linked article is obviously grossly mistaken as to the construction of Chinese characters, both in general, as well as in the specific cases he brings up. I'll offer non-ridiculous analyses for the characters listed, based mostly off of the very useful Chinese character etymology website. I give the pronunciations for the phonetics and the meanings of the semantics:

船 (chuan2, boat) = 舟 (older word for boat) + 㕣 (yan3)

婪 (lan2, covetous/greedy) = 林 (lin2) + 女 (woman... sorry ladies)

造 (zao4, create/cause) = 告 (gao4) + 辶 (foot, walk); logic unclear

完 (wan2, complete) = 宀 (building/roof) + 元 (yuan2)

禁 (jin4, to forbid) = 林 (trees) + 示 (omens)

園 (yuan2, garden) = 袁 (yuan2) + 囗 (enclosure)

魔 (mo2, wizard/magic/demon) = 麻 (ma2) + 鬼 (ghost/monster)

As you can see, most of the characters are semantic-phonetic compounds. Also, the forms of the characters shown in the article are modern ones, not oracle bones forms.

Addendum:

I chose not to give the meanings of the phonetic components in my analyses because I don't want to encourage the widely held (and incredibly wrong) perception that characters have no phonetic content and that every part of a character "means" something. Certainly some characters are pictograms (e.g., 马 = horse) or semantic-compunds (e.g., 焚), but the vast majority are semantic-phonetic compounds. I also chose not to repeat the analyses given in the article, since I think it would only increase the likelihood of people taking them seriously.

For the OP's benefit, I will do a more detailed analysis for "garden" which looks at the makeup of the phonetic character and compares it to the analysis given in the article:

The analysis given to us in the article is:

園 (garden) = 土 (dust) + 口 (breath literally "mouth") + ??? (two people) + 囗 (enclosure)

I think I made clear how the entire inner content of the box is a component used purely for its phonetic value (and therefore the article writer is mistaken in analyzing it for its meaning).

However, the article's analysis is flawed in several other ways as well:

  1. It treats the character as being made up of 4 components. Even if it were a semantic-compound, it would be made up two parts: 袁 (???) + 囗 (enclosure). The former character survives in modern Chinese only as a surname, so it's unclear what in the hell they would mean put together. I think 袁 once meant graceful, so I guess "graceful wall".

  2. The phonetic part (袁) is itself a pictogram of a pendant over the character for clothing; not 土 + 口 + ???. The fact that the modern form (which doesn't look like the Seal script form) appears to contain a 土 and a 口 isn't really relevant.

  3. Even assuming it made sense to analyze 袁 into sub-components, and even assuming the seal-script components were the same as the modern ones, the author has done it wrong. The "two people" fragment given is not even a character. You could write "two people" as the character for person twice 人人 (doesn't look like it), use the "two people radical" 彳 (also doesn't look it), use the word "from" 从 (still doesn't look like it). What the fragment the article author wrote down as "two people" is actually the bottom part of 衣. It's a pictogram that originally depicted fabric.

You commented "I just need a clear answer: do the characters mean that or not?". I hope this answer has elucidated how the article's author was wrong on pretty much every level you can be wrong on. If you want that in yes/no format, I'm pretty sure it's "no no no no no...".

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I think 造 zao4 has phonetic component 告 gao4 –  congusbongus Jun 18 '13 at 1:10
    
@CongXu I was basing my analysis off of that offered at chineseetymology.org. I had also originally assumed it was 告 as the phonetic, but I'd need more information to make a clear determination (e.g., middle chinese pronunciation). Any resources? –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 18 '13 at 1:27
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@MikeManilone I mean "most" both in the context of the article as well as in the sense "most of the characters listed in a dictionary". Also, although phonetics are occasionally semanticly relevant, it's a mistake to think that they must contribute to the character's meaning. Sometimes a phonetic is just a phonetic :) –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 18 '13 at 20:10
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@MikeManilone Please provide references. I'm gonna stick with the Wiki and Baike: "据统计,东汉许慎编纂的《说文解字》收录汉字9353个,其中的形声字就占了82%;南宋郑樵对 23000多个汉字进行了统计分析,形声字占90%;现代7000个通用汉字中,形声字也占80%以上。" 80+% is a vast majority. –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 19 '13 at 17:01
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@MikeManilone You seem to be of the opinion that if the second component has any semantic similarity, the character must be a 会意字. For me, if the second component has sufficient phonetic similarity, I'd classify it as 形声字. Regardless of how one chooses to classify characters, the vast majority of characters have a component with a significant phonetic similarity (or there was significant similarity at time of creation). Furthermore, there is ample evidence that historically, phonetic borrowing comes first. Here's an example –  Stumpy Joe Pete Jun 21 '13 at 15:44

Two quick points:

  1. These characters have differing ages. Some of them have etymology tracing back to the oracle bone script, others are newer.

  2. 船 doesn't mean a 'large boat', just a 'boat'.

I'm not really interested in going through full analysis on all of these, but suffice it to say that this article lacks correctness on both age and meaning claims.

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Thank you for the quasi-answer. If you do decide to go through the analysis that is what I am looking for. Do/can the characters mean what the article says or not? –  fredsbend Jun 18 '13 at 23:15
    
Short answer is "No". The meanings of these characters are being misconstrued in many cases. 魔 does not mean tempter. 广 does not mean cover. 口 does not mean breath. –  juckele Jun 19 '13 at 20:00
    
Thank you. I +1 but you will have to give something on the same level as Stumpy Joe Pete if you want the chance to be selected. –  fredsbend Jun 19 '13 at 21:57
    
Dear @juckele, but 魔 can mean tempter, if that 魔 is defined to tempts. –  congliu Aug 31 '13 at 15:29

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