April 11, 2006

De-honorific Chinese character for Devil?

I knew that there is a unique character (祂) in Chinese for the third-person pronoun of God, but I only recently came across something distinctive for referring to Satan. (For an interesting discussion about the use of the characters 祂 and 祢 as respectful or honorific ways of referring to God, see the comments section here.) In the work I was reading, the third-person pronoun 牠, which is normally used to refer to animals, was used throughout the text when referring to Satan. I wondered, is this a unique example of a de-honorific? Not to play the devil's advocate, but was the devil being demoted to a beast? Does this have anything to do with the traditional image of a hoofed Devil with tail and pitchfork?

I checked the most common edition of the Chinese Bible, the Union (和合) version. The Bible is not particularly fond of using third-person pronouns, and Chinese uses them even less than English, so it took a bit of looking to find some examples. The results were not conclusive in showing the beginnings of this usage. This translation does not even use the 祂 character for God, so, as expected, its treatment of Satan is very even-handed. In the temptation of Jesus in the desert, for example, the normal third-person pronoun 他 is used for the Devil. When Satan is characterized as a dragon, the pronoun for animals, 牠 is used.

In a commercial I saw for The Lord of the Rings recently, the Orcs were referred to using the pronoun for animals, 牠. Orc is translated as half-beast person/entity (半獸人), so to translate this as 牠 indicates that there is some room for a value judgment in using the characters 牠 and 他.

How is Satan/the Devil portrayed physically in the Bible? The first instance is the serpent's temptation of Eve. It is later stated that the serpent is Satan/the Devil. Thus, although the humanoid 他 seems like the most logical choice for a third-person pronoun, using the animal form 牠 is a defensible position, even without trying to determine what is the essential form of the Devil.


  • Very interesting post. Satan, I believe, originally was an angel who, because of vanity and pride and desire to be lord of himself, was cast down from heaven. It's very Chinese of course to show the proper disrespect to Satan as a way of showing the proper respect to God. However, were it my translation, I would go with a gender-neutral "他". Thanks for the cool info.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at September 05, 2010 7:58 AM  

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