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Friday, 27 September 2013

Chinese Tree Stories

   I’ve long been fascinated by the Chinese writing system, where each character represents one or more words.  Different characters can be minimized in order to blend together into new words.  A book entitled Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn’t Solve by Ethel R. Nelson and Richard E. Broadberry has opened my eyes to some of the stories embedded into certain Chinese characters.
   By looking in particular at the base-word “tree” in Chinese, we can see a progression from an actual picture of a tree to an ancient etching on a bone fragment to the modern symbol for tree. 
The symbol for tree appears in a number of Chinese words; for example “stop, rest” has a “person” symbol beside a tree.  This makes sense because resting in the shade of a tree is a common experience that the original “readers” of the Chinese language could all relate to. 
   However, there are some puzzling combinations as well.  “Law” is composed of a single tree with a human mouth superimposed on it above the symbol for God.  Why would law be associated with a tree?  Furthermore a pair of tree symbols side-by- side also appear in the words  “sorrow” and “desire/covet.” In “sorrow” there are two trees with a person between them.  In the oldest versions of this character, the person is represented by a mouth (eating) and a foot (standing/staying there) or by a figure of a hand reaching up.  Why would eating between two trees mean “sorrow”?  Could there be a story of someone who ate something at the site of two significant trees that led to great sorrow?   Likewise, “desire” and “covet” have a female figure with a prominent eye standing between two trees and gazing at one of them. 
What does she want from the tree?  Did it have something to do with a “law” God had decreed? 
   If we believe that all human cultures had access to the first stories of history (creation, fall, flood) prior to the dispersal of nations and the confusing of languages in Genesis 11, it should not be surprising when creation and flood myths abound in ancient oral and written cultures.  This small sampling of tree-words in Chinese gives a glimpse of a story where coveting a piece of fruit from a certain tree led to the greatest sorrow imaginable.

   The tree of life (one of the two trees in the centre of Eden’s garden) resurfaces in the Hebrew and Greek Scriptures.  A future hope is given to Ezekiel and to the Apostle John that the tree of life will be available to humans once again that they may live forever in God’s presence.  How can the way to this tree become accessible again?  Only by the One “who bore our sins in his body on the tree”  (1 Peter 2:24, emphasis mine).

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