Where does “Middle Kingdom” come from?

Continued investigation around the character 中

Where does the word China come from?

The name China, adopted by Westerners, derives from the first unifying emperor Qinshihuang 秦始皇 and the name of his dynasty Qin 秦, 221 to 206 BC. Many neighboring countries spoke of the land of Qin from the beginning of the Christian era. Thus came the word China adapted to each local language. Other interpretations bring together the words gold, 金 jin, and China or the word tartare for silk, serique, and China. Russia adopted Kitai, from the name of a Mongolian people, the Kitans.

秦始皇帝 Chinese emperor

And the Middle Kingdom?

中国 zhōng guó in Chinese refers to the country but has no relation to the term China or the first dynasty. It is composed of two characters 中 center and 国 country. The translation will give Middle Country or Middle Kingdom. But has China always called itself that?

Central States

The term had many meanings. The research is blurred by local political aspects that want to demonstrate the whole Chinese territory’s historical continuity. Nevertheless, the documents show that the main meanings of 中国 corresponded initially to the Shang dynasty’s territories, then to the states located in the center of China.

Names of the country

The country has had several appellations—华夏 huá xià de 华 splendor and 夏 first dynasty half legendary. A great Chinese bank, the Huaxia 华夏银行 took this name. People of Chinese origin living abroad with this 华 are called: 华人.
Taiwan has taken back 华 in its name 中华民国, wrongly translated the Republic of China, but that’s another story. The People’s Republic of China has done the same with 中华人民共和国.
Dynasties preferred to call the country by mentioning the name of the dynasty as the Ming (1368-1644), Grand Ming, 大明. Under the Qing, China was called the Great Land of Qing 大清国.

Are we Chinese?

Historian Shi Aidong reports the findings of a Portuguese merchant who experienced Chinese jails in the 16th century. He found it curious that “the Chinese (Zhongguoren) do not know that they are Chinese (Zhongguoren). He said: “We are used to calling this country China and its inhabitants the Chinese, but when a Chinese person is asked why they are so named, they say: ‘We don’t have that name, we never had that name. Very intrigued, Pereira insists: “What is the name of your country as a whole? When someone from elsewhere asks you about your country of origin, what is your answer? “For the Chinese, this question is very strange, but they end up answering: “In ancient times, there were many kingdoms. Now there is one man who rules them. But each state still uses its old name. These states are the provinces of today (sheng 省). The state as a whole is called the Great Ming (大明), and its inhabitants are the people of the Great Ming (大明人). “( Passage from the text of Dirlik)

Looking for a name

The official adoption of 中国 by the Chinese authorities is still quite recent; it appeared in contact with foreign countries. The term appeared for the first time in the Treaties of Nerchinsk with Russia in 1689.
Chinese reformer Liang Qichao :

Chinese reformist liang Qichao

Some intellectuals of the Qing period, such as Zhang Deyi, initially complained that Westerners now use the term 中国 when the name was Da Qingguo. As the sinologist Arif Dirlik explains, thinkers such as the reformer Liang Qichao (1873-1929) did not want the term to be just a geographical name as Japanese imperialism would later claim. Liang played a pioneering role in constructing modern Chinese nationalism while providing the basis for the “concept” 中国. He lamented that his country did not have a name and that it had changed over time. One school sees in the term 中国, the appearance of a new idea to unite the Chinese under a banner (see Arif Dirlik’s text). This is another political story…

Article on character 中: 中 :centre and harmony

Sources :
中国龙的发明, 2014, 施爱东

For the political aspects :
Arif Dirlik’s text : Born in Translation: ” China ” in the Making of ” Zhongguo “.

5 October 2020

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