Across Pacific & Asia

- By Robert Goh
* CLICK here  -  for Mandarin version

The International Red Cross in its 1998 world disasters report says that year was the worst on record. Hurricane Mitchell struck in central America, drought in Indonesia, and floods affected 180 million in south China.

Earlier, in 1939 floods in north China from the Yellow River killed 100,000. Prior to that, in 1931 floods killed 3.7 million, and in Manchu dynasty times in 1887, a flood caused 900,000 deaths.

Ancient China must have had a long record of floods, since, like ancient Egypt and Mesopotamia, its early civilisation was built near a river.

Consequently, the Chinese must have built boats quite early, and a form of the word must have been written down since early times.

The modern Chinese word for boat or ship ( chuan) is a curious one. It escaped the 1956 character simplification reform in China, but today it is found in two forms.

In both the forms, there is a sailing vessel  (zhou) as a radical, and also a character for "mouth"  (kou) and finally, one with a component for either "several" (ji)  or  "eight" (ba) . But which is the correct one?

Assuming that the correct form is that for "several" the word "ship" looks similar to words like the metal lead  (qian) , and the word for alongside  (yan). However, the pronunciations for all these are rather different, which is very surprising.

Certainly "ship" is not a newly created word. The Japanese know of this word, since around 400AD, Chinese books were first brought into Japan from Korea. They call it fune, and it appears similar to the word for navigate.

According to Japanese teachers of Chinese at the University of Tokyo, the word for navigate (hang) derives from a vessel, and on the right, a pictograph of a man with a raised neck - looking around so as to navigate properly. Did that pictograph of a man's neck become the number eight?

Whether the word for boat derived from navigate or vice versa, (it is more logical to build a boat first, then navigate it) it is clear that in the case of boat, the two components at the right hand side are eight and mouth.

Today there are major dictionaries such as The Chinese-English Dictionary by the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (1979), Chinese Bibles, and some computer word processing programs such as Chinese Star 2.97 which use the component "several".

However, Cihai, published in Taiwan as late as 1988, and Matthews' Chinese-English Dictionary of 1931 still show the number 8. In fact, an ancient form of the word boat shows it to be eight mouths.

The question is, why should there be eight mouths and not seven, or six or any other number. Obviously they refer to eight people, but which eight?

One possible explanation is that the word derives from an otherwise forgotten Chinese memory of a great worldwide flood in ancient times that is better known to the west as the Great Flood of Noah's day as recorded in the Jewish peoples' Hebrew Old Testament book of Genesis.

According to that account, there were only eight people saved in Noah's day (Gen 7:13): Noah, his three sons Shem, Ham and Japheth, Noah's wife and the three sons' wives.

It was not a nationalistic epic, since the Hebrew account places the survivors as landing on - not on Mt Hermon, the highest mountain in Israel today -  but the mountains of Ararat which is presently at the Turkish-Armenian border, far away from Israel.

Moreover, the later New Testament books of 1 Peter 3:8 and 2 Peter 2:5 repeat the number eight who were saved.

In fact, over many parts of the world, there were other ancient peoples who had similar stories. Similar stories come from southern Asia, the South Sea islands, and all parts of the continent of America - but they are very rare in Africa (Ancient Egypt had a flood story) and Europe.

The Greeks had several versions of a myth in which a king Deucalion and his wife Prrrha escaped from a great flood by floating in a chest that finally landed on a mountain. They took refuge on Mt Parnassus (in central Greece not far from Delphi) and, at Zeus' command, cast  stones which became a new race of human beings.

An Indian myth from the 6th century BC tells how the hero Manu was advised by a fish to build a ship as a means of escape from the coming flood. When it came, the fish towed the ship to a mountain top.

Excations at Ur in Iraq by Sir Leonard Wooley in 1929 may have confirmed the ancient belief of many nations when he discovered a layer of clay 3m deep which was apparently deposited by a great ancient flood.

It seemed to echo the story of a great worldwide flood as recorded in a Babylonian clay tablet, the Epic of Gilgamesh, written over 2,500 years ago. According to that epic the hero and sole survivor Utnapishtim landed on Mount Nisir (in Kurdistan, upper Iraq).

Today a surviving Chinese legend of an extensive ancient flood vaguely revolves around the person of a goddess Nukua who supposedly ended the flood by patching up the blue sky with five-coloured stones; the details are very different from the Hebrew version.

Only the character "boat" and its eight passengers seems to remain as a constant reminder of what had happened long, long ago.

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