Dear Brothers and Sisters,
Good Morning and Nihao.
For those who don’t know me, I am originally from Taichung, Taiwan. When I joined the church in 1982, Taichung was a district that belonged to the Taiwan Taichung Mission. Over the years, this small district has grown into 4 stakes. The early saints in Taiwan, similar to all church pioneers, faced countless challenges. Many were questioned by their families about why they would choose to abandon their traditional beliefs and instead embrace a foreign religion and worship a foreign god.
While I was blessed to have understanding parents, others were not as fortunate. During my early days in the church, I remember hearing about one Brother, who was the only member of the Church in his family and faced much opposition when he decided to serve a mission. His parents, siblings, and relatives all strongly criticized his decision as a sign that he was discarding his identity for an alien faith. His parents were so disappointed and heartbroken that they disowned him the night before he reported to the mission office.
As a new convert, hearing stories like this Brother’s really made me wonder if the gospel of Jesus Christ really was as foreign and alien to Chinese beliefs as some tend to think. For those unfamiliar with traditional Chinese religions, the most standard answer is that most believe in Confucianism, Taoism, Buddhism or a mix of the three as a folk religion. However, what many don’t realize is that while these three main religions originated from around the 5th century BC, the Chinese people have about forty five hundred years of unbroken history and written documents. This has led some scholars to wonder what ancient Chinese people believed in during that space of about two thousand years before Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism were introduced.
One interesting approach to this has been through the study of Chinese characters1. As most of you know, Chinese is considered the oldest continuously used writing system in the world. Unlike writing systems based on an alphabet, Chinese is built upon pictures and symbols to illustrate and communicate various meanings. For instance, here are several characters that represent natural elements and abstract concepts from their earliest to their current written format.
The first one is a circle with a dot in the middle of it which became more boxy, and then is currently written as this, signifying the sun or one day. This second character began as this picture, was simplified over time, and now is written as this. Hopefully, most of you can see how it still represents a mountain. The third one begins as this, eventually becoming more symmetrical and finally standardized as this. This character represents a natural creation with branches and roots. What is it? Yes, it is the word for wood or tree.
While the modern styles are more practical, looking at the ancient versions can be insightful and raise thought provoking questions. For example, the character for woman is like these, and modified over time. Looking into the earlier symbols for woman, it is interesting to note that she is carefully depicted as kneeling and with her arms folded in front of her, a position of reverence, worship, or prayer.
Moving on, now let’s look at some ideographic words for abstract concepts.
The character used to describe something large is the symbol for a man with his arms extended out as far as possible to form the character for big or great. When a line is added on the top of big or great, it indicates something that is even bigger than the greatest man, namely the sky or heaven.
This character is king. Similar to heaven, what do you think happens when a dot is added on top of the word for king? It’s an indication of someone even bigger or greater than a king. Do you have a word in mind? This character is used for a King of Kings, or a Lord.
Just from these basic examples, and given the pictographic and ideographic nature of the Chinese writing system, it makes logical sense that these characters may contain clues about what ancient Chinese people believed in during the 2000 year gap.
From a gospel perspective, let’s look at the very beginning, with Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Could the ancient Chinese people possibly have known this biblical story?
In Genesis 2:9, 16, and 17, it describes how there were two trees in the Garden of Eden:
"9 And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil.
16 And the Lord God commanded the man, saying, of every tree of the garden thou mayest freely eat:
17 But of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, thou shalt not eat of it: for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die."2
In these scriptures, the Lord God named two particular trees (the tree of life, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil) and instructed Adam and Eve on what they were forbidden to eat in the garden.
Interestingly, the Chinese character for restrict, prohibit, or forbid is, which has two parts; the bottom part symbolizes a decree from someone in authority (specifically deity), and the top part indicates two trees.
Furthermore, in Genesis 3:6 it reads:
"And when the woman saw that the tree [of knowledge of good and evil] was good for food, and that it was pleasant to the eyes, and a tree to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat, and gave also unto her husband with her; and he did eat."3
Similar to, the Chinese character to covet, or eagerly wish for something is lán. As you can see, it still has two trees but the character for a woman has replaced the decree from deity.
Lastly, in Genesis 3:7, it reads: "And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked."4
The Chinese character for nude or nakedness is, which is made up of the word for clothes on the left and the word for fruit on the right. While the symbol for clothes makes sense, I hope you all are as curious as I am as to why and how the character for fruit was related to nakedness in the minds of the ancient Chinese when they created this character.
In addition to these interesting correlations to Adam and Eve in the Garden, Chinese characters also seem to record significant events very vividly. Consider the next two major stories in the Old Testament- Cain and Abel and the great flood and Noah’s ark.
In Genesis chapter 4, Adam and Eve begat two sons named Cain and Abel. As we all know, Cain was the elder brother who slayed his younger brother Abel, so the Lord set a mark upon Cain.5 In Chinese xiōng is the word for elder brother. The word for a murderer, xiōng, has the same person shape and pronunciation as elder brother, but is written so the person has a mark on his face. As the story of Cain and Abel was the first murder in human history, it wouldn’t be surprising if ancient peoples may have taken note.
As for Noah’s ark and the flood, the Chinese word for a big ship is chuán. On the left of the character is a board or vessel, and on the right are two symbols. The one on the top is the number eight, and the one on the bottom is a mouth or soul, kǒu. Do you remember how many people survived the great flood?
If we turn to Genesis 7:13, it states that “In the selfsame day entered Noah, and Shem, and Ham, and Japheth, the sons of Noah, and Noah’s wife, and the three wives of his sons with them, into the ark”.6 So there was Noah, his three sons and each of their wives, so in total, eight.
As time goes by, I have also noticed indications of an ancient relationship between God and the Chinese people can been found embedded in traditional cultural practices. For instance, Chinese New Year is just around the corner. On the first day of the New Year, Chinese traditionally greet each other by saying “Congratulations” rather than “Happy New Year”. This is because they have survived the horrible monster of, who comes and devours people on New Year’s Eve. They light fireworks to scare away the monster, and most importantly must place strips of red paper on the top and sides of the entrance to their homes as the color red has the power to repel evil. Here is a photo of people putting red paper around their door.
In addition, on New Year’s Eve, family members gather together inside the house for a traditional dinner and try to keep each other awake until after midnight. Among other dishes, a traditional Chinese New Year dinner generally includes a bitter herb, a sweet brown or white mixture of rice cake, meat from an unblemished animal, and variety of unleavened bread.
Sound familiar? The bitter herb, unblemished animal and unleavened bread of the Chinese New Year dinner is the same as the Passover meal. The New Year’s monster harkens back to the destroying angel, while the red on the doorways likewise matches the blood the Israelites put on their doorways from the Passover lamb.
As described in Exodus 12: 7, 8, 23 and 24:
"7 And they shall take of the blood [of a lamb], and strike it on the two side posts and on the upper door post of the houses, wherein they shall eat it.
8 And they shall eat the flesh in that night, roast with fire, and unleavened bread; and with bitter herbs they shall eat it.
23 For the Lord will pass through to smite the Egyptians; and when he seeth the blood upon the lintel, and on the two side posts, the Lord will pass over the door, and will not suffer the destroyer to come in unto your houses to smite you.
24 And ye shall observe this thing for an ordinance to thee and to thy sons for ever."7
I believe that the majority of Chinese people today likely do not realize that they have been faithfully observing Passover traditions into the modern day.
Especially given the strong directive in verse 24, while the meaning behind the traditions may have been lost over time, it seems clear that the ancient Chinese people must have taken the Lord’s command from Old Testament times to “observe this thing for an ordinance forever” very seriously.
Let’s approach this from another viewpoint.
The Book of Mormon is another testimony of Jesus Christ (the God of the Old Testament), and also includes the history of the Jaredites as recorded by the prophet Ether. Interestingly, practices described in the Book of Ether that are unfamiliar or unusual in Western tradition are actually familiar to the Chinese.
For instance, consider the practice of keeping a past king prisoner over the course of his lifetime (instead of killing him) and even allowing him to beget and raise a family in captivity. As described in Ether 7:7, “It came to pass that [King] Kib dwelt in captivity, and his people under Korihor his son, until he became exceedingly old; nevertheless Kib begat Shule in his old age, while he was yet in captivity.”8 This practice, while described on several occasions in Jaredite records, was also not unusual in the history of the Chinese monarchy.9
In addition, almost all Chinese people know about luminous precious stones like those the Brother of Jared received from the Lord to light the Jaredite boats. These stones are called yè míng zhū. It is common knowledge that these small glowing stones were possessed by the emperors and passed down in the families of each dynasty, as many significant figures (such as the mother of the last Ching emperor) were found buried with yè míng zhū in their tombs.
Another unique detail in the Book of Mormon that many people wonder about is why the most important person among the Jaredites is without a name and only known as the Brother of Jared. In scripture, we know that the Brother of Jared is highly favored of the Lord as the Lord said of him, “never has man believed in me as thou hast”.10
While not being addressed by name would be strange or even disrespectful in a Western context, it is the opposite in Chinese tradition. As a symbol of utmost respect, highly esteemed individuals are not called by their given names. For example, children always call their parents, grandparents, and other higher-ranking family members by their relationship to them. It could be for this same reason that Ether chose to describe the mighty Jaredite leader only by his relationship title as the brother of Jared. In a way, we may also be seen as following this tradition in our modern interactions with deity as we address Heavenly Father by his title or relationship to us rather than by name.
So, given these numerous traces of biblical history in the Chinese writing system and cultural traditions, many scholars wonder how the ancient Chinese people could have so completely forgotten beliefs from before the rise of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism.
One possible explanation is that the divine role of Jesus Christ as the Son of the most high God has been replaced by the ancient rulers of China over time. Since the Zhou dynasty, Zhōu cháo, the highest ruler of China also held the title of "tiān zǐ", literally meaning the Son of Heaven or the Son of God.11
However, according to research done by renowned scholars Hugh Nibley12 and Vernell Simmons13, there is a high likelihood that the ancient Jaredites may have passed through China on their way to the Promised Land and contributed many lasting ideological influences. For example, in order to gain legitimacy as rightful divine rulers, emperors of China usually traveled to Mount Tai, an extremely tall and prestigious mountain, and speak with God.14 According to Nibley and Simmons’ propositions, the exceedingly high Mount Shelem where the Brother of Jared communicated with the Lord and received the luminous stones in Ether 3:1 appears to coincide with the description and location of Mount Tai.15
Additionally, an ancient book of official ceremonial procedures stated that the emperor-to-be needed to have the status of “Son of God” first. Then, when the imperial Jade Seal was given to him, only then did he become the ruling emperor.16 Interestingly, the phrase “Being Commissioned by Heaven” is also engraved on the Imperial Seal. Since the Chinese use seals instead of signatures, this phrase on the Imperial Seal basically indicated that the Emperor had the authority to represent and act on behalf of Heaven.
While we likely must wait until after the Second Coming to find out exactly how everything happened, it strengthens my testimony to have these little insights into how Jesus Christ and traditional Chinese beliefs may be even more closely associated than many people realize.
I am encouraged by these correlations between the Old Testament, the Jaredites and Chinese culture and hope they will be helpful to future missionary efforts, however, I also wish I could travel back in time to many years ago in Taiwan. Knowing what I know now, I wish I could somehow have let the parents of that young Elder know that he was not rejecting his identity and culture by choosing a foreign god, but that it was likely that the ancient Chinese people did know of and worship Heavenly Father and believe in Jesus Christ. Rather than be heartbroken, they should have been proud of their son because he found the true and restored religion of their ancestors, as in 3 Nephi 17:4, when Jesus says “now I go unto the Father, and also to show myself unto the lost tribes of Israel, for they are not lost unto the Father, for he knoweth whither he hath taken them.”17
No matter where or into what background we were born, I encourage everyone to seek and find the gospel truths in their cultures and their lives. I testify that we are all children of our Heavenly Father, and that eternal joyfulness can be found if we follow the counsel of our modern day prophets. As Elder Dallin H. Oaks expressed in 201218, while we are encouraged to keep the cultural practices that are in harmony with gospel teachings, we should likewise give up contrary customs and “climb to the higher ground of the gospel culture, to practices and traditions that are rooted in the restored gospel of Jesus Christ.”
To conclude, I would like to express how studying the scriptures with a sincere heart has brought joy to my soul and enlightened my mind to many things. I testify that Joseph Smith is a prophet of God, and that the Book of Mormon contains gospel truths which have the power to penetrate through every culture and belief. This is my testimony, in the name of Jesus Christ, amen.
[To see Chinese images mentioned in this talk]19
C. H. Kang and Ethel R. Nelson. The Discovery of Genesis: How the Truths of Genesis Were Found Hidden in the Chinese Language; Concordia Publishing House (1979).
Ethel R. Nelson, Richard E. Broadberry, and Ginger Tong Chock. God's Promise to the Chinese; Read Books Publisher (1997).
Ethel R. Nelson, and Richard E. Broadberry. Genesis and the Mystery Confucius Couldn't Solve; Concordia Publishing; Revised edition (1994).
Hugh Nibley. Lehi in the Desert and the World of the Jaredites. Salt Lake City: Bookcraft (1980).
Vernell W. Simmons. Peoples, Places and Prophecies: a Study of the Book of Mormon. Independence, Missouri: Zarahemla Research Foundation, Inc.(1981).
3 Nephi 17:4