12 Apr 2005
Back in the year 2000 when I first started going to Catholic mass in China, I discovered some interesting interplay between the Church and the Chinese language. I’ll mention just one such example here.
Traditionally, God’s name has been capitalized in English, even in pronoun form. Hence you will find, “for He is our salvation,” “Follow Him,” “Do His will,” etc. The pronoun capitalization is intended to show respect.
An obvious problem appears when one attempts to continue this tradition in Chinese translations of the Bible. Chinese does not lend itself to the “capitalization” of just any character (though there may be an exception or two). I found the Chinese solution to be quite interesting.
To understand the solution, however, you need to first understand a few things about Chinese pronouns. The basic pronouns are 我 (I), 你 (you), 他 (he), 她 (she), and 它 (it). You’ll notice that the characters 你 (you) and 他 (he) have the same radical on the left side: 亻. This radical is derived from the character 人 and means “person.” Notice, too, that it is swapped out for a 女 to convert “he” (他) to “she” (她). Although it’s not done on the Mainland so much, the Taiwanese also sometimes like to make a female version of “you” (你) in the same way: 妳.
While the pronoun “you” (你/妳) is directly related to 尔 etymologically, “he/she” (他/她) is not directly linked to 也. Nevertheless, what the above usages seem to establish is that “you” and “he” each have a “core element” (尔 and 也, respectively) which, when combined with the appropriate radical, produce a gender-specific pronoun. (Interestingly, the use of 亻 — derived from 人, which means “person” — for the male element seems to be the reverse of the West’s former use of the word “Man” or “mankind” to mean “humans” or “humankind.” 人 is normally a very inclusive term, used even in the words for “alien” (外星人) and “robot” (机器人), where the English terms “person” or “human” would not apply. Perhaps the Chinese 人, at its core, means something more like “humanoid.”)
What the Chinese have done is make use of these “core pronoun elements” 尔 and 也. Rather than using either a “male” or “female” radical, an entirely different one is chosen (which seems to be in better keeping with a genderless understanding of God). The radical chosen was 礻.
礻 is derived from the character 示, which is generally understood to depict an altar. Karlgren states that 示 “occurs as a signific in characters bearing on religion, rites, etc.” (Wenlin). It seems the perfect choice. The pronoun characters you will see in the Chinese Bible when referring to God, therefore, are 祢 and 祂.[Note: 祢 is already claimed as a surname pronounced Mí rather than Nǐ, but the Church seems to ignore this discrepancy. It’s also interesting that the Church rejected the use of 您 for God, which is the standard polite form of 你. I guess “polite” isn’t good enough. To me, at least, 祢 seems to simultaneously convey reverance (by radical) as well as intimacy (by pronunciation), but I have no idea how the Chinese feel about it.]
I also wondered what had been done with the pronoun “I.” True, God doesn’t speak in first person much in the Bible, but it does happen. Exodus is a good example. The issuing of the Ten Commandments contains a liberal sprinkling of God pronouns “I” and “me”. Just one example:
> I, the Lord, am your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, that place of slavery. You shall not have other gods besides me. (Ex 20:2-3)
So I checked this verse in an online Chinese Bible. No luck. It’s just 我. [Not sure if there could be Chinese Bible version issues here…] I was kinda hoping for 礻+ 我 for consistency. I suppose we don’t see this for two reasons. The main reason is that the character apparently doesn’t exist, and never has, even as a variant form. The other reason is that 我 contains no swappable element such as 亻 or 女. Like the English first person pronoun “I,” which comes capitalized right out of the package, it seems to need no dressing up.
Note: Christianity was almost certainly not the first organized religion to make use of “god pronouns” in Chinese. A Google search turns up examples of it in Buddhist literature as well. Being Christian and not Buddhist, I simply discovered their usage in the Bible first.