Review of The Discovery of Genesis by C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson

The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language by C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson was recommended to me by a woman at a church that I visited when I was on a business trip to California. The main thesis of the book is that many Chinese characters show evidence that the ancient Chinese were familiar with Jewish monotheism and the creation story as told in the early chapters of Genesis.

I was not entirely unfamiliar with this startling claim. I remember that when I was a child, my parents pointed out to me that the Chinese character 船 (ship) was composed of the characters 舟 (boat), 八 (eight), and 口 (mouth or, synecdochally, person), and that there were eight people on Noah’s ark—Noah, his wife, his three sons, and their wives. The 船 example is mentioned in The Discovery of Genesis as appearing in “a footnote of a Mandarin textbook used by a missionary,” but the book goes much further, and dissects a large number of Chinese characters in a similar fashion to demonstrate their connection with the Genesis narrative.

To skip ahead to the punchline, I find that the authors’ evidence for their main thesis is rather thin. It is a well-known psychological phenomenon that once you are convinced that a pattern is present, then everything will seem to confirm it, even if objectively there is nothing there. For example, in Chapter 8, the authors write:

The first human conception is recorded in the Chinese written language as a son. The word pregnant 孕 is made up of two symbols, is 乃 and a son 子. This character even looks pregnant, with the son contained within the larger figure!

I am happy to agree that the presence of 子 inside 孕 was intended (by the ancient Chinese who invented the character) to be a visual representation of a son inside its mother, but does the existence of this character really confirm the thesis that the ancient Chinese were familiar with the story of Eve giving birth to her son Cain? The authors think so, but I do not. For another example that I find even less believable, in Chapter 6 the authors discuss the radical 豸 (reptile, according to the authors, although I have always thought of this as animal or even pig), and see the three strokes 彡 (feathers or hair) in it as confirming the theory that the serpent in Genesis originally possessed wings and stood upright, before God cursed it to crawl on its belly.

Another issue that arises repeatedly through the book is that some of the characters that the authors dissect pictographically are, in my opinion, more plausibly explained phonetically. For example, in Chapter 7, the authors analyze 躲 (to hide) as 身 乃 木 (body is tree) and draw a connection to the story of Adam and Eve hiding among the trees from God after they realized that they were naked. However, 朵 is a homophone of 躲, and it seems more likely to me that the origin of the character 躲 is phonetic. Similarly, the authors analyze 赶 (drive out or expel) as having the radical 走 (go or walk)—so far so good—and that the 干 (offender) on the right is there because the first expulsion—from Eden—involved the expulsion of the offenders, Adam and Eve. The first worry I have is that I believe 赶 is a simplified character and of relatively recent origin (the traditional character being 趕), and I do not see how a character that was invented in the 20th century can provide any support for the authors’ thesis. But even if I am wrong about this and 赶 is an ancient character, it seems likely to me that the presence of 干 is phonetic, since 赶 and 干 are homophones (except for tone).

To be fair, in the epilog, Nelson does recognize that some of the character dissections are individually not so convincing. However, using the analogy of a mosaic, she maintains that while each component of the picture looks unconvincing in isolation, together they form a compelling picture. Similarly, in Footnote 5 of Chapter 3, the possibility of alternative phonetic analyses is discussed at some length. I remain unconvinced, but readers can judge for themselves.

Having expressed my overall skepticism, I would now like to pick out what I would consider to be the top ten examples from the book, listed in the order in which they appear.

1. 先 (first) = 丿 (life, according to the authors, though I had not heard this interpretation before), 土 (soil), and 人 (person).

2. 元 (beginning) = 二 人 (two people).

3. 婪 (covet) = two 木 (trees, of life and of the knowledge of good and evil) and a 女 (woman).

4. 禁 (forbidden) = two 木 (trees) and a 示 (deity or statement).

5. 兇 (brutal) looks like, and is pronounced the same as, 兄 (elder brother), i.e., Cain, who killed Abel.

6. 犧 (sacrifice) = 牛 羊 秀 戈 (ox sheep lovely spear).

7. 上帝 (God) is pronounced ShangDi which resembles שַׁדַּי (Shaddai, one of the Judaic names of God).

8. 沿 (continue) = 氵 八 口 (water eight people); compare the aforementioned analysis of 船 (ship).

9. 乱 (confusion) contains the word 舌 (tongue), which the authors suggest is an allusion to Babel; note, though, that again I have the impression that 乱 is a simplified character of recent origin.

10. 遷 (migrate) = 西 大 卩 辶 (west big division walk), which the authors regard as a post-Babel reference; but note that the interpretation of 卩 as division is a bit obscure.

If you find these examples compelling, then I would recommend reading the book for the full account; you may also want to read the sequel, Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn't Solve (which I have not read). But if not, then I doubt that looking at the full list of examples will be any more persuasive to you.
Posted January 2014

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