China's name is not China

Shanxi, Sui dynasty, pagoda
Sui dynasty pagoda at Jinci, Shanxi (reconstructed 1751CE)

The reason why we use the name China in the West for the country needs a little explanation. Like many English names for countries it is not the name used within the country itself. ‘Greece’ is known as ‘Hellas’ to the Greeks and ‘Egypt’ is ‘Misr or Masr’ to its people. The origin of the name China is not easy to trace as it has been in use for thousands of years. It probably derives from the Sanskrit word ‘Chinasthana’ (meaning country to the East of India) or it might be possibly connected to the Qin (pronounced ‘Chin’) kingdom. The name was in use long before the First Qin Emperor (259 - 210 BCE) came to unify China. The Qin kingdom was the most westerly of the many smaller kingdoms that became China and so would have been the first kingdom reached when traveling overland. From ‘Chin’ the Greeks and Romans probably derived the term ‘Sinae’ which you find in words like ‘sinophile’ (someone who likes China) and ‘sinologist’ (someone studying China). In Roman times another name used was ‘Serica’, the land where silk came from. Serica is believed to be derived from the Chinese word for silk pronounced 'ser'.

Other countries use different names for China following their own history of contact with the country. So ‘Cathay’ (as in Cathay Pacific Airline ) is in use in Central Asia and refers to the ‘Qidan’ people who ruled northern China in the 11th century.

Name in China

Zhong Guo,Name for China

The Chinese people themselves have several names for their own country. zhōng guó is the official name. It means literally middle or central country; kingdom or region and was based on the traditional view that China is the center of the civilized world surrounded by barbarians. The modern form of guo has the character for the precious treasure jade enclosed within a boundary. The old version of guo was which had a spear and mouth inside an enclosure, suggesting a person proclaiming ownership of an area.

Throughout dynastic history the formal name was linked to the dynastic name so during the last Qing dynasty the country was dà qīng guó 'Great Qing Kingdom' and during the Ming dynasty dà míng guó 'Great Ming Kingdom'.

Hua was a name used by the early Han people, and this is used to refer to China as in Xinhua News agency. hua can also mean 'flower' and from a misleading translation China was sometimes referred to as the ‘Flowery land’; in the 19th century. Central China and in particular the province of Hunan used to be called Zhonghuadi ‘Central flowery land’. Zhonghua Minguo refers to ‘The Republic of China’ (1912-1949) and still used in Chinese Taipei (Taiwan) while the full title zhōng huá rén mín gòng hé guó Zhonghua Renmin Gongheguo, refers to ‘The People's Republic of China’. There are many other names that have been used over the years. One of the earliest hints of a china-centric view of the world as: tiān xià means all below heaven or our land. Much is made of this in the epic film Hero set at the end of the Warring States period. There is also the name jiǔ zhōu Nine Regions as Yu the Great originally divided the land into nine regions. Historically but more recently the term eighteen provinces shí bā shěng has been used.

shén zhōu Divine Region is a poetic name for the country. More informally you may come across zǔ guó, the motherland, or simply wǒ guó, my country. Emphasizing the feeling of a single community there is also guó jiā or home country as jia means home or family.

With 92% of the population categorized as Han Chinese, the term ‘Han’, named after the Han dynasty, is also used to refer to China as a whole even though it excludes some ethnic minorities. During Han times the rough geographic limits of the modern Chinese nation had been already been set.

Name for the Language

Just as varied are the words used to refer to the language of the Chinese people. First of all there are several languages and many dialects spoken in China, there is no universal ‘Chinese’. The official and most widely used dialect of the Chinese language is that used in Beijing. Its historical association with the Imperial court has led to the term ‘Mandarin’ being used for the language, after the officials who spoke it. ‘Mandarin’ was a term used by the Portuguese for the officials, it is now believed to be derived from a Malay word for 'counselor' or 'minister' (reflecting early contacts in the spice trade) which in turn shares its root with that of 'mantra'.

In China the official name for the language is pǔ tōng huà common speech. Reflecting the historical origin of the Han people it is also known as hàn yǔ. Other names include the name for China, so you will also hear zhōng wén where wen refers to the common written script rather than the spoken tongue and zhōng guó huà.

China's Flag

China flag

The flag of the People's Republic of China is the Communist red of revolution, with one large and four smaller stars. The large star symbolizes the Communist Party and the other four stars the important classes of people of China: working class; peasantry; petit bourgeoisie and patriotic capitalists. Reflecting views at the time it excludes intellectuals and ‘ordinary’ capitalists. Red is the color of communism and the Han dynasty, while yellow is for the Yellow River as well as the skin color of Han Chinese people. A later revision suggested that the smaller stars may refer to the minority peoples of China.

China emblem

The National emblem of the People's Republic of China has the same five yellow stars for the party and the important classes of people of China. They stand above a representation of Tiananmen Gate, the entrance to the Forbidden City from Tiananmen Square. The circle is surrounded by ears of grain representing the rural peasants while the gear at the bottom stands for the industrial workers. The Chinese National Badge was designed in 1935 by Liang Sicheng, Lin Huiyin and other experts and finalized by Gao Zhuang.

Flag of Republic of China

Previously the flag used by the Republic of China (1928-1949) had a white sun in a blue sky surrounded by red ground. The twelve rays of the sun symbolizes either months or hours. The red ground represents the blood of martyrs who died to found the republic. Blue is for liberty and white for equality and democracy. It is still used in Chinese Taipei (Taiwan).

Flag of Republic of China

Another flag briefly used for the Republic (1912-1928) was five equal horizontal bars of different colors.

Each bar represents a different ethnic group: red for Han Chinese; yellow for Manchu; blue for Mongolians; white for Hui and black for Tibetans. This misses out the largest minority group in China the Zhuang. The Japanese puppet state of Manchuguo used a variation of this flag.

Flag of Qing dynasty China

Each dynasty had its own flag; the last Manchu Qing dynasty developed a rectangular format (1889-1912) rather than the original triangular form to tie in with flags of other nations. It is also known as the Yellow Dragon Flag, a blue dragon is chasing a red pearl. Yellow has been the color of emperors from ancient times.

National anthem

Tian Han wrote the national anthem and it was set to music by Nie Er in 1935. It is entitled “The March of the Volunteers” 勇军 yì yǒng jūn jìn háng qǔ and was written at the time of the Republic of China and the fight against Japanese invasion.



Qǐlái! búyuàn zuò núlì de rénmen!
Bǎ wǒmende xuèròu zhùchéng wǒmen xīnde chángchéng!
Zhōnghuá mínzú dào le zuì wēixiǎn de shíhòu
Měigèrén bèi pòzhe fāchū zuìhòude hǒushēng
Qǐlái! qǐlái! qǐlái!
Wǒmen wànzhòng yìxīn,
Màozhe dírén de pàohuǒ, qiánjìn!
Màozhe dírén de pàohuǒ, qiánjìn!
Qiánjìn! qiánjìn, jìn!

Arise, you who refuse to be slaves;
With our own flesh and blood, let us build our new Great Wall!
The peoples of China are at the most crucial time,
Everybody must roar his defiance.
Arise! Arise! Arise!
Millions of hearts with one mind,
Brave the enemy's gunfire, march on!
Brave the enemy's gunfire, march on!
March on! March on, on!

monument, Beijing, Tiananmen Square
Monument on West side of Tiananmen Square between Mao Mausoleum and Monument to the Heroes of the People. September 2013. Image by RThiele available under a Creative Commons license .
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Citation information: Chinasage, 'The name for the country of China', last updated 14 Oct 2015, Web,

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