Naming Conventions for "China"

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“China”, as we know it today, has never been called that by Chinese, and we are not even certain whether it is a linguistic corruption or a mere invention by “outsiders”.

For most of its existence, the country or “empire”—whatever its size and shape at the time—has been known to “Chinese” (mainly literate Chinese) by a dynastic name: The Great Tang [大唐], The Great Song [大宋], The Great Ming [大明], The Great Qing [大清].

In 1912, the old imperial system was overthrown and a new revolutionary government opted for the term Republic of China [中華民國]. Later, following the overthrow of the Guomindang [国民党] and its National government, the Communist Party of China chose People’s Republic of China [中华人民共和国].

Strictly translated, word by word, according to a Chinese–English dictionary, these latter names read Central Flourishing Republic and Central Flourishing People’s Republic [or Central Flowering Republic and Central Flowering People’s Republic]—with two different Chinese renderings for the word “republic”.

But to most people, Chinese or “outsiders”, for whom formal names are not so important, the simple term is just Zhongguo [中国] or “China”. Non-Chinese outsiders who are “in the know” are aware that a direct, character-by-character, dictionary translation of 中国 – Zhongguo reads “Central Country”, “Central State” or, most popularly, “Central Kingdom”. Most Chinese never think about the meaning, just as we don’t think about the origins of the names Burton, Smallshaw, or, for that matter, Mediterranean.