What do the Chinese call China?

China in Chinese

Chinese culture is thousands of years old and during that long time China has always been something like the Roman Empire was in Europe. China has not always existed over the millennia, sometimes for centuries the country had disintegrated into small principalities and kingdoms at war with one another. Then again one of the kingdoms succeeded in subjugating all the others and unifying what is now China.

Origin of the name China

A little over two thousand years ago there was such an empire in what is now China that subjugated all other kingdoms. This empire was the "Qin Dynasty", one of the great Chinese imperial dynasties. It existed from 221 to 207 BC. Before that, the house of the Qin was a principality that had existed since about the year 900 BC, and had gradually expanded and subjected to other empires.

During this time there was also a first boom in trade relations between the Far East and the Roman Empire, which was then ruling Europe. The trade took place over winding caravan routes, along the legendary Silk Road, through Afghanistan, Persia and the Ottoman Empire to today's Italy.

The Qin dynasty (pronounced "Tchinn", with a "ch" sibilant and a short "i") was probably the namesake of today's China. Because in Rome the distant land from which valuable silk and rare spices came was known as the land of "Qin" (Tchinn), and this name has been preserved in Europe. Over the millennia, "Chinn" became "Chin-a" and that's how China got its current name.

China in Chinese

But China is only called China in the west, in Chinese the country has a completely different name. Because the Qin dynasty was only one of many Chinese dynasties, and not even the most important. The "Han dynasty" that followed it was much more influential for the Chinese self-image. The Qin imperial family was overthrown by peasant uprisings and an imperial official succeeded in taking power in the vast empire and establishing a new dynasty. The official and new emperor carried out many important reforms neglected by the Qin emperors and laid the foundation for the rise of Chinese culture.

The Chinese still call themselves "Han-ren", literally translated as "Han people" or "Han citizens". The Han Chinese make up the vast majority of the population in China, with over 90% of the population.

Since the time of the Han dynasty and its administrative reforms, the Chinese Empire was the dominant power in Asia and for the inhabitants of China it became a matter of course to see their own huge empire as the center of the world, surrounded only by a few small kingdoms and wild equestrian tribes in the North. The Chinese empire was the indisputable center of the (known) world for millennia.

Zongguo, the middle country

It was therefore natural to name the country accordingly, namely the Middle Kingdom, or in Chinese "Zhong-guo". This is comparable to our European Mediterranean, which in Roman times was also the center of the (known) world and was named accordingly.

In addition to the traditional short name Zhong-guo (pronounced Jung-Guo), the country also has an official, longer name. The People's Republic of China is called Zhong-guo Ren-min Gong-he-guo in Chinese. Translated individually:

  • Zhong-guo = China (country in the middle)
  • Ren-min = People, population
  • Gong-he-guo = Republic

China in Chinese characters

In China, however, the country name is rarely written in western letters, but usually in its own font, the Chinese characters.

The characters for the name China, i.e. Zhong-guo, are 中国, the full country name in Chinese characters, i.e. Zhong-guo Ren-min Gong-he-guo, is 中国 人民 共和国.