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China in world languages

The different usages of China in world languages is not dramatic, as the names can be derived back to a few sources, according when and how it was reached, whether by:

Table of contents
1 Native names
2 Western names
3 Others

Native names

Names used in Asia, especially East and Southeast Asia are usually derived directly from words in a language of China learned through the land-route. Those languages belong to a former dependency (tributary) or Chinese-influenced country have especially similar pronunciation with those of Chinese.


This group of names derives from Khitan, an ethnic group that dominated Manchuria. In English and in several other European languages, the name "Cathay" became widely used largely as a result of English translations of the adventures of Marco Polo, which used this word for China.

There is no evidence that either in the 13th or 14th century officially, Cathayans, i.e, Chinese, travelled to Europe, but it is possible that some did, in unofficial capacity, at least in the 13th century. For, during the campaigns of Hulagu (grandson of Genghis Khan) in Persia (1256-65), and the reigns of his successors, Chinese engineers were employed on the banks of the Tigris, and Chinese astrologers and physicians could be consulted at Tabriz. Many diplomatic communications passed between the Hulaguid Ilkhans and the Christian princes. The former, as the great khan's liegemen, still received from him their sealss of state; and two of their letters which survive in the archives of France exhibit the vermilion impressions of those seals in Chinese characters -- perhaps affording the earliest specimen of that character which reached western Europe.


Middle Kingdom (中國) in Mandarin Chinese


Middle Prosperity (中華) in Mandarin Chinese, originally referred to the culturally rich Henan.


"Tabgach" or "Tuoba", a dominant tribe of the Xianpi


Western names

Those used in European languages have indirect names came from the sea-route that bear little resemblance to what is used in China.


From Sanskrit Cin, possibly derives from the name of the Qin Empire (2nd century BC).

Marco Polo described China specifically as Chin. Barbosa (1516) and Garcia de Orta (1563) mentioned China.

The mention of the Chinas in ancient Sanskrit literature, both in the Laws of Manu and in the MahabhŃrata, has often been supposed to prove the application of the name before the predominance of the Qin Dynasty. But the coupling of that name with the Daradas, still surviving as the people of Dardistan, on the Indus, suggests it as more probable that those Chinas were a kindred race of mountaineers, whose name as Shinas in fact likewise remains applied to a branch of the Dard ethnicity.

Cin in Sanskrit was brought back to China, and then to Japan, with Buddhist literature. It was transcribed in various forms including 支那 (zhi1 na4), 脂那 (zhi1 na4) and 至那 (zhi4 na4). When Arai Hakuseki, a Japanese politician, interrogated a Italian missionary Sidotti in 1708, he noticed that "Cina", which Sidotti referred to China as, was identical to Shina, the Japanese pronunciation of 支那. Then he began to use this word for China regardless of dynasty. Since the Meiji era, Shina had been widely used as the translation of western "China". For instance, "Sinology" was translated into "Shinagaku" (支那学). However, somehow the Chinese believed that "Shina" was a derogatory term. In 1946, the Republic of China demanded the prohibition of use of "Shina" to Japan.


A name possibly of origin separate from "Chin" The name probably came to Europe through the Arabs, who made the China of the farther east into Sin, and perhaps sometimes into Thin. Hence the Thin of the author of the Perifrlus of the Erythraean Sea, who appears to be the first extant writer to employ the name in this form; hence also the SinŠ and Thinae of Ptolemy.

Some denied that the SinŠ of Ptolemy really represented the Chinese. But if we compare the statement of Marcianus of Heraclea (a mere condenser of Ptolemy), when he tells us that the "nations of the Sinae lie at the extremity of the habitable world, and adjoin the eastern Terra Incognita," with that of Cosmas, who says, in speaking of Tzinista, a name of which no one can question the application to China, that "beyond this there is neither habitation nor navigation" -- we cannot doubt the same region to be meant by both. The fundamental error of Ptolemy's conception of the Indian Sea as a closed basin rendered it impossible but that he should misplace the Chinese coast. But most scholar still believe SinŠ is China, because:


An earlier usage than Sin, possibly related.

This may be a back formation from serikos (σηρικος), "made of
silk", from sêr (σηρ), "silkworm," in which case Seres is "the land where silk comes from."