What does “China” even mean anyway?


The map of the world as it usually appears in China.

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A deconstruction of the words used for this massive country both in the West and within China will yield interesting insights.

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Down the centuries, farmers and merchants, kings and conquerors, historians and explorers have identified the agglomeration of states, dynasties, empires and ethnicities now known as China in numerous different ways.  These titles say a lot about the misunderstandings of history and the state of the world today.

The names for most things in the world we apply without much consideration for how or why we use them.  Where I’m from, most people grow up identifying dogs as “dogs” and not as gou as they do in China.  In addition, we call China “China” and not Zhongguo 中国the most common name for the country among Chinese themselves.

That’s fairly simple – different people, different cultures, different languages.  But what is more interesting is how both sides arrived at their designations for the country called China, Zhongguo and numerous other similar names in other languages and the controversy surrounding what they mean today.  

Zhongguo means Middle Kingdom and, along with a similar term Zhonghua中华 (also still used frequently today), was used as far back as the Western Zhou Dynasty in the 11th to 8th centuries B.C.  In these ancient times prior to the Qing Dynasty, this term was mainly used to refer to the stratified state society of the Han ethnicity and culture, one of the cultures that emerged as dominant on the plains surrounding the Yellow River.  Its isolation from other similarly complex societies led to a degree of self-obsession, and the Middle Kingdom often referred to the capital, the center of civilization which necessarily deteriorated the further from the capital one went into wilder (and less-Han) environments.  

Some historians have argued that a more accurate translation of the term Zhongguo is “central kingdom” since the Chinese saw their civilization as not merely located in some vague geographic “middle” but as the most important, advanced and ultimately superior civilization in the world – or “under heaven” as they termed it – tian xia 天下. It’s important to note that this ancient Zhongguo only comprised a small fraction of modern-day China.  It doesn’t include the majority of the far south (Guangdong and Hong Kong), far north (Manchuria) or far west (Sichuan, Tibet) of China.  The Han in these ancient times viewed these regions as the realms of savage and exotic barbarians – places you would exile disgraced officials.  This worldview was only strengthened by the periodic non-Han conquerors of China, such as the Mongols of the Yuan Dynasty, who readily Sinicized and divided their subject population into castes according to ethnicity, with the Northern Chinese Han near the top of the hierarchy just under the Mongol rulers themselves.        

This changed significantly during the Qing Dynasty, founded by the non-Han Manchus.  Their prerogative was to make the notion of Zhongguo inclusive of other ethnic groups aside from the Han.  The Middle Kingdom thus came to include not just the Han, but the Manchurians, Tibetans, Mongolians and numerous other minority cultures scattered throughout what is today China.  Modern-day confusion among Chinese people about the distinction between nationality and ethnicity is rooted in this erasure of ethnic identity in favor of national identity by the Qing rulers.  It partially explains why China’s government sees itself as entitled to ruling Tibet.     

Another significant change brought about by the Qing Dynasts was the use of Zhongguo to refer to China as a nation-state in official diplomatic correspondence.  Prior to the 19th century, the Chinese referred to their country by its dynastic name – The Great Ming and Great Qing, for instance – since China’s self-consciousness as a state in relation to other state’s did not really exist at that point.  Their points of reference were the sources of central authority that had risen and fallen within the realm of their own civilization in the form of dynastic rulers.  This changed in the 19th century with the encroachment of Europeans and the assertiveness of Japan when China’s rulers became aware of the necessity of establishing the country’s identity on the global stage.     

In the 20th century, the intellectuals involved in the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 which toppled the Qing Dynasty, the May Fourth Movement of 1919 and both the Nationalist and Communist revolutionaries adopted the name Zhonghua as the official title of their aspirant governments of China.  In a manner similar to that under the Qing Dynasty, Zhonghua as a concept subsumed the Han as well as 56 officially recognized minority ethnicities.  The official title of the People’s Republic of China is 中华人民共和国 – shortened as Zhongguo.  

It’s interesting to note that many overseas Chinese communities, especially those that emigrated from China prior to the 20th century, do not necessarily refer to themselves as people of the Middle Kingdom, or Zhongguoren, as today’s Mainland Chinese do, or even as Han.  Old Chinese-American communities, for instance, call themselves Tang and their Chinatowns as Tangjie or Tang Street.  This is a reference to the Tang Dynasty, the second golden age of Chinese civilization after the Han Dynasty.  The people of southern China were largely Sinicized during the Tang Dynasty and so its people identify more with that seminal dynasty rather than with the earlier Han Dynasty.  Most of China’s emigrants come from South China.  

If you’ve read this far you may have noticed that at no point in China’s history have Chinese people used the word “China” to refer to themselves.  And so why do Westerners use this term and where does it come from?  Many assume that it has to do with Chinese porcelain, called china, that was exported from China to Europe beginning in the 16th century and gained enormous popularity.  This assumption is correct, but Europeans named the porcelain after the country it came from, not the other way around.  

So why did Europeans call China “China”?  Scholars aren’t entirely certain.  Variations of the word are believed to derive from references to the Qin Dynasty, the first imperial dynasty of China that started the Great Wall and crafted the Terracotta Warriors.  At the time of its founding in the 3rd century B.C. the Qin Dynasty was China’s western-most center of power and had indirect contact with the Roman Empire.  The Qin name was passed along via Hindu and Persian to Latin and on down through history into modern European languages.  Portuguese explorers and merchants in the 16th century were the first to use the modern name China in use in English today.   

The etymology of Sino as a reference to China is also thought to be a reference to the Qin State.  Just as modern Europeans called porcelain “china,” the Romans and Greeks used similar words for silk (the hottest Chinese commodity at that time) and for its country of origin.  For them Seres or Serica (China) was “the land where silk comes from.”  The ancient Latin and Greek words for silk (serica) are thought to derive from the Chinese word for silk – si .

So what relevance does all this blather about names have for today’s world?  Of what significance is it that Chinese people refer to themselves by a different name than Westerners use?  I believe the significance lies in the meaning and history of these names.  Zhongguo refers to that ancient perception among Chinese of their centrality and importance.  Despite the increasing globalization of China’s society, that perception is still prevalent among Chinese.  Foreigners in China are only just beginning to be differentiated by nationality or ethnicity – largely they are still grouped together merely as laowai or waiguoren (foreigners) – and it is virtually impossible for waiguoren to ever be considered Zhongguoren (Chinese).  Even the precious few foreigners who have gained Chinese citizenship will never be considered Chinese.    

China also continues to hold itself to a different standard than it holds for the rest of the world.  Human and civil rights and democracy are fine for other countries, but unsuited to China’s special circumstance as a large developing country.  China’s experience with civil war and poverty in the mid-19th to mid-20th centuries is seen as an unfortunate blip in an otherwise continuous history of brilliance, prosperity and exceptionalism.  And despite China’s nominal status as a socialist and communist republic, China’s people by and large do not believe in egalitarianism.  They believe in the superiority of Han culture and that wealth and prosperity permit entitlement.  

Westerners meanwhile refer to “China”, a name derived from the products China has produced for the West.  It is a name that refers to China’s utility from the subjective Western perspective and in no way suggests China’s centrality or civilizational importance beyond its economic power.  China is one country among many and is expected to conform and contribute to the globally Western economic, political and cultural system.

Until the day technology so erases distance that humanity becomes a completely monolithic bloc (if that’s even a possibility) China and the West will undoubtedly continue to wrestle with these conflicting subjectivities.  

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