I’ve written before about the complexity of language in China, but it might interest people to know that the complexity involves the name “China” itself. This term was actually a western invention that was derived from the Qin Dynasty (Q makes a Ch sound in the pinyin system), which was in place from 221 to 207 BC.
The Chinese refer to their county as 中国. This is written in pinyin as “zhōng guó,” and is pronounced roughly like “jong wah.” Translated it means “middle empire,” “middle nation,” “middle country” or “middle kingdom.” (Even the official name, the People’s Republic of China, uses 中国 for the China part).
The term, of course, is loaded. It arose to imply that China is the center of civilization, the middle of the world around which the barbarians live. Indeed, the Chinese sense of centrality is a very important part of the culture here and is critical to understanding its history.
Though it risks reductionism, it is at least partly helpful to understand the last several centuries of Chinese history as a reality check about their middleness followed by an attempt to reassert it. When the great Western powers began to assert themselves commercially in the 1700s and 1800s, they found the Chinese regime highly resistant to foreign trade and fairly snobbish about the value of all that Western stuff anyway. For their part, the West wasn’t willing to validate the cultural superiority of the Chinese. When Lord Macartney visited China in 1794, he famously refused to kowtow to the Emperor, literally or figuratively.
In the 19th Century, these Western powers provided a swift lesson regarding just how advanced their cultures really were, at least in terms of aggressive trading practices and powerful navies. They satisfied their demand for Chinese tea by introducing opium into China (to keep trade balanced) and pried open a number of ports by force.
Other elements of our culture—like artery-clogging food and billion-dollar movies—would seep in later.
These cultural encroachments stung—and they continue to sting. Just recently here in Shanghai, a pizza restaurant was blasted by local Chinese for advertising its location in the “French Concession,” a term that’s still widely used but which dredges up bad memories of foreign imperialism.
Many of the current attempts at superlatives—the fastest train, the tallest building, the best Olympics, the greatest expo—can be viewed as the Chinese trying to reestablish the prestige of the Middle Nation.
Frankly, I think it’s time the rest of the world allow them that sense of prestige. One need only spend a few minutes looking at incredible Chinese artifacts, some 5000 years old or even older, to understand the legacy and power of Chinese culture.
Wine Vessel, 13th Century BC (Shanghai Museum)
Maybe we can start by reassessing what we call this place. Instead of “China,” how about “Middle Nation?” We can go with “the MN,” for short, sort of like “the UK.” Or, how about something that uses the actual sounds of the term? After all, we don’t refer to “Puerto Rico” as “Rich Port.”
How about “Zhongguo” or, even better, “Jongwah?”
In fact, you can help me spread this around. Next time you need to say “China,” say “Jongwah” instead. Soon, we’ll be talking about how Nixon went to Jongwah…