Looking Through the Gates of Hell:
Examining a Curious Linguistic Claim
by Steve Willoughby
Stop the presses! Shocking new discovery reveals hidden connection between the Mormon Church and the forces of darkness! The truth is revealed in examination of the name of the Mormon church when spelled out in Chinese characters. “In Chinese, ‘Mormon’ means ‘gates of hell,’” reports Ed Decker in his popular exposè, The God Makers.1
Or, at least, that’s what some critics of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as Ed Decker, would have you believe. How could such a thing be? Is the Church trying to hide its true nature by writing it in Chinese in the hopes that nobody would notice? That would seem, of course, to be absurd in the light of the fact that more people on Earth speak Chinese than any other language.2 It’s also stretching credulity to assume that the nearly 800,000 Mormons in Asia3 could be “duped” into joining the Church with that glaring issue staring them in the face every Sunday.
Perhaps, then, this is one of those infamous cases where a large organization chose a spectacularly unfortunate product or service name when moving business to foreign lands. Coca-Cola is still famous for the “bite the wax tadpole” faux pas even though the mistranslation (of their product name into Chinese) wasn’t their doing.4 (Perhaps some of our critics would be eager to embrace this idea, suggesting that it was divinely arranged for the Church to accidentally show her true colors in this mistake.)
As tempting as those theories may be to some people, the truth of the matter is much more simple and striking. It just simply, plainly, isn’t even remotely true. The name of the Church doesn’t mean anything of the sort, on two different counts.
First, the actual name of the Church is not even “Mormon” (popular though that nickname may be). Rather, it is “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.” In Chinese, this is rendered as:
In Mandarin (the majority, or “official” dialect in the People’s Republic of China and in Taiwan), this is pronounced Yesu Jidu Moshi Shengtu Jiaohui. Literally, taking the characters two at a time (these are all two-character words), “Jesus Christ Last-days Saint Church.”
Second, even looking at the nickname, “Mormon,” it is rendered into Chinese thus:
Pronounced Momen Jiao, these three characters are very plain to understand. The first two characters, mo and men were simply chosen to represent the sounds of the English word “Mormon,” and have no actual meaning other than to allow transliteration of this proper noun into Chinese. The last one, jiao (short for jiaohui) simply means (in this context) “church,” and is the suffix found at the end of nearly every Christian denomination, from Catholics (Tianzhu Jiao) to Presbyterians (Zhanglao Jiao), and even such faiths as Judaism (Youtai Jiao), Taoism (Dao Jiao) and Islam (Hui Jiao).
The individual characters themselves do have meanings, and it’s not too difficult to see how the middle character, men, visually suggests a “door” or “gate,” and indeed if it were standing as a word by itself that would in fact be its meaning. However, it is not standing alone, but is merely the second syllable of another word. Hence, it doesn’t mean “gate” in this context any more than the English words “brotherhood” and “neighborhood” refer to varieties of head coverings, whatever the word “hood” may mean in other contexts. In fact, the character men is found in many other Chinese words, including “lightswitch” (dianmen).
The Devil, You Say?
The heart of the controversy, then, lies with the initial character, mo. How does one get the idea that this means “hell” or “Satan,” leading to the “hell’s gate” or “Satan’s gate” accusation? The most likely character in Chinese to have this connotation is:5
|Devil, Magic, Wizard, Witch|
This character appears in words such as:
|mo2fa3 (“magic method”)||mo2gui3 (“devil spirit”)|
|enchantment, witchcraft, sorcerery||devil, demon, ghost|
|mo2shu4 (“magic skill”)||mo2wang2 (“devil prince/king/ruler”)|
|magic, wizardry, witchcraft||Prince of Darkness, Satan|
At this point, the astute reader will have recognized that the anti-Mormon critics have deftly pulled some sleight of hand, replacing the mo character which is truly used in connection with the Church, with a completely different one. Note the obvious difference:
Homonyms are Not Synonyms
The fact that they’re both pronounced the same would be immaterial in any language, but that fact is particularly true for Chinese, which has a stunning number of homonyms (with 421 distinct syllables in the language, mapped to thousands of written characters, homonyms are extremely common). What is significant is that they are completely different characters, with totally distinct meanings and connotations.
In fact, in one standard Chinese dictionary,6 there are no less than thirty-four different characters in common usage which are all pronounced mo. Their meanings range widely, including feel, “touch, copy, model, kneel, worship, steamed dumpling, tiny, bubbles, ink stick, and mushroom, among others.
As one researcher pointed out, the character actually used by the Church “suggests ‘smoothing something with the hand’” and if taken literally “might suggest…the bleeding hands of Jesus Christ that smoothed the way to salvation!”7
Before our critics make too much ado about sound-alike words, they should consider that a word in one language may phonetically match a word in a foreign language, but mean something completely different (the matching of sounds is purely coincidential). For example, in English the word gift is a nice thing to give another. In German, gift means “poison.”8
That Evil Mo
We’ve already shown that the characters mo and men as used by the Church are purely for phonetic transliteration, but is there some inherent “evil” connotation of the mo character, even the correct one used by the Church, which would give any shred of support to the “Gates of Hell” allegation?
Consider some other words using that same character:
|motorcycle||Book of Mormon|
Let’s look at this logically. From their argument about the Chinese word Momen, where they claim the character mo combined with the ordinary character men (“gate”), means Hell’s gate or Satan’s gate, then that same mo character combined with the ordinary character xi (“west”) must mean “western devil”! Yet it’s the name of the prophet Moses, appearing in Chinese Bibles9 all over Asia! Those making the “gates of Hell” claim must therefore also make the claim that Moses was an agent of Satan, on exactly the same logic by which they condemn the Church, or their argument against the Church fails as well.
Likewise, the same mo character is used to form words like “motorcycle.” Are good Christians required to eschew motorized two-wheeled vehicles as tools of the devil? Probably not, but using the “gates of Hell” logic, we must conclude that motorcycles are of Satanic origin.
Notice also the examples on the right, the Chinese rendering of two English proper nouns using this character. The Motorola corporation would obviously not be amused at being the target of the same kind of slander attempt which is being made against the Church, and of course such an allegation would be just as baseless and absurd as it is when made against the Church.
The claim that “Mormon” in Chinese means “gates of Hell” is false, and relies on a misleading substitution of an altogether different character which coincidentally sounds the same as the genuine one used by the Church.
It is unfortunate that these two very different words have the same pronounciation, which doubtless has even caused confusion amongst Chinese speakers when in a casual verbal conversation. It is even less fortunate when critics of the Church exploit a situation like this to sensationalize it as supposed ‘proof’ of Satanic influence on the Church, undoubtably fooling many unsuspecting readers who don’t have the advantage of knowing how to read Chinese characters. To those who can, the claim that “Mormon” means “Gates of Hell” is quite easy to see through as false.
1 Ed Decker and Dave Hunt, The God Makers (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 1984), 72.
2 The number of Mandarin speakers overshadows the next most popular language, English, by a ratio of nearly 2:1. Numerous references for this statistic exist; perhaps the most enjoyable to read is “SoYouWanna Know the Ten Most Widely Spoken Languages in the World”, <www.soyouwanna.com/site/toptens/languages/languages4.html> (3 July 2003).
4 The popular recounting of this event is that when Coca-Cola introduced their soft drink into China, they erred when translating their name into Chinese. Supposedly, the translation they chose for their company name meant, literally, “bite the wax tadpole.” After suffering much embarrassment, the company chose a more eloquent translation that they use to this day. In actual fact, the Coca-Cola company got the translation right the first time, but some Chinese shopkeepers mistranslated the name on their store signs. People still poke fun at this as the classic example of a corporate mix-up. See Barbara and David Mikkelson, “Urban Legends Reference Pages: Bite the Wax Tadpole,” <www.snopes.com/cokelore/tadpole.asp> (6 May 2003).
5 Liang, Shih-chiu (Ed.). A New Practical Chinese-English Dictionary (The Far East Book Company, Taipei, Taiwan, 1971). Character index numbers and general definitions cited herein are from this dictionary. Tonal inflections are indicated here by superscripted digits after each syllable.
7 Prof. Robert W. Blair, as quoted by Stephen R. Gibson, One-Minute Answers to Anti-Mormon Questions (Horizon Publishers, Bountiful, Utah). Excerpt available on the Internet at<www.lightplanet.com/response/answers/gatesofhell.htm> (6 May 2003).
9 E.g., The Holy Bible, Bible in Chinese Union Version, “Shen” Edition 2564. (The Hong Kong Bible Society, Hong Kong, 1983).