The Chinese language primarily relies on pictographs to communicate. Supposedly, there are over 100,000 Chinese characters, although most experts agree that you need to know about 3,000 to 4,000 to be considered “literate”. The cool thing about pictographs is they often convey underlying meaning for the words they are trying to represent, and there’s history and tradition associated with why the characters look the way they do.
For example, the word for water started out like this: . If you asked someone to draw what flowing water looks like, it might look similar to this word. It has since evolved into this word: 水. You can see the similarities between the two versions and understand how a word came to mean a specific definition.
One very interesting word in Chinese is the word for ship: 船. It can also be written as 船. Now, if you break down this word, there are three individual words here: 1. 舟, 2. 八, and 3. 口. What do these words mean? Well, 舟 means boat, 八 means eight, and 口 means mouth, which means that the word ship could mean eight people on a boat. Does that sound like a familiar story in Genesis about a specific watercraft?
Even looking at my own Chinese name, 柯恩泽, there are some interesting things to discover. The first character is my surname, and there really isn’t a lot of meaning there – however, the next two characters, 恩 and 泽, when combined, have a meaning similar to a “pool of grace” or “a lot of grace”. Specifically, the first word, 恩, pronounced “ēn”, means grace, and is made up of several characters, 因 and 心. 因 means “to rely on” or “depending on”, while 心 means “heart”. So the Chinese understanding of grace is that it’s something that is reliant on the heart, or that grace comes from the heart. Of course, you could take that meaning in a lot of different directions, but for me, it’s a way to demonstrate that grace from God is based on His love for us in His heart.
There are plenty of other characters to look at that help us derive meaning. Asian cultures have rich histories of poetry, drama, and writing that utilized these characters – it’s important to remember that God created language at the Tower of Babel and that is the foundation of these characters. As a kid, it was easy for me to dismiss learning Chinese because I was an American – I didn’t need to learn. Now though, I am more appreciative of my understanding of the Chinese language and how through it, my relationship with God can develop even further.