“China” doesn’t exist. | Etymosemanticology


Let me tell you guys a story. Once upon a
time, there was a … let’s call it a state. It was a area, about here, all ruled by a
group of people referred to as the “Zhou,” and as such the name of this state was also
“Zhou.” Now, this might seem pretty strange to us, kind of like calling the United States
“Obama” because that’s the last name of the guy in charge, but keep in mind this
area might not have originally had any common identity besides that they were all ruled
by the Zhou dynasty. They probably spoke different languages and had different cultures, but
we can’t really know that for sure because they didn’t write anything down. The only
people who wrote stuff down were the rich, educated elites, which is to say the Zhou
themselves, who definitely did share a common language and culture. Somewhat annoyingly,
they didn’t have a real name for their language besides just “the proper way to speak.”
Now, there was a geographical term I should probably mention, “zhongguo.” This term
was sometimes used to describe this country, region, place, but all it ment was “central
state.” Or possibly “central states,” because this language doesn’t require you
to specify whether things are singular or plural, but the point is, “zhongguo” was
never a precise word, it was always just a kind of vague geographical description. It
was a common assumption at the time that the center of the world was maximally civilized
and that the further away you got from it the less civilized the people were, so “zhongguo”
literally ment “the middle realm,” but implied “the most civilized realm.” It’s
kind of like how in the US we sometimes call the president the “leader of the free world”.
Do any of us actually have any idea what is and isn’t part of the “free world”?
Definitely the US, probably the rest of NATO, and maybe “allies of the US” in general?
Is Mexico part of the free world? Turkey? India? No one knows, and no one really cares,
it’s not supposed to mean anything, it’s just a way of saying “our leader is super
important and powerful, and also we’re better than you.” Same goes for “Zhongguo.”
Anyway, eventually the Zhou lost power to a new dynasty called the Qin, which itself
was quickly replaced by the Han dynasty, and so people started calling the political territory
itself “Han” just like with the Zhou. The Han dynasty adopted the culture of the
Zhou, and over time this culture of the elite trickled down to everyone else, and eventually
everyone was speaking this language that didn’t have a name in this country that didn’t
have a name. The Han dynasty also expanded the country to the south, spreading the language
and culture there too. But after that, when the Han dynasty fell and the region broke
up into a bunch of smaller states, something interesting happened. Even though they were
politically divided they all still shared that common culture of the elites from the
Zhou and Han periods. They looked back on the time when the Han dynasty ruled as a sort
of golden age, and they saw themselves as the rightful descendants of that cultural
legacy, so it seemed natural to call themselves “the people of Han,” even long after the
Han state ceased to exist. They still call themselves “Han” to this day, although
who exactly counts as Han has always been kind of vague. Like, originally it seems like
the term just referred to the people of the original territory of the Zhou to the north,
but eventually the term was expanded to include the people of the more mountainous south,
sense they had also adopted Han culture after being conquered by the Han dynasty.
So yeah, as the centuries went by the people of this region continued to refer to political
entities by the families of their rulers or whatever region the rules came from, and they
continued to refer themselves Han. However, the language slowly diverged into a whole
bunch of different languages. Now, as you might have noticed, I’ve been
talking about what in the west we generally call “China,” and yet, I’ve managed
to do so without ever once actually using the word “China” or “Chinese.” That’s
because no one in this region actually uses those words. The word “China” probably
comes from a Persian word which probably comes from a Sanskrit word which might have come
from the word “Qin,” the name of that super-short dynasty that came between the
Zhou and Han dynasties. But not only isn’t “China” a word Chinese people use, but
the entire idea of “China” might not have really existed in it’s modern form until
Europeans introduced it. Like, in the US and the western world more generally we like to
think in terms of nation states. Like, this country is France. French people live here,
and they speak French. We have this instinct that political regimes, cultural identity
and language should all line up with each other geographically to create what we might
call a “nation.” But that way of thinking used to be pretty foreign to China until contact
with Europeans really got serious in the 1800s, at which point the Han people started thinking
much more in terms of this nation-state model. Well, at least, I think? Ok look, talking
about a single person’s sense of identity and group membership can be really complicated.
Talking about that but generalized for a large population is extremely tricky. Talking about
that but over the course of two thousand years is simply beyond the scope of this video.
But from where I’m sitting it looks a awful lot like the European nation-state concept
at the very least substantially influence the way Chinese people think about themselves.
Before they were Han people who lived in the Qing state which happened to include Zhonguo
and who spoke a whole bunch of different languages descended from Middle Chinese, but with more
and more contact with Europeans they started thinking in terms of “China” (Zhonguo)
“Chinese people” (the Han) and the “Chinese Language,” for which they coined a whole
new term: Han-yu, literally just “Han Language,” which doesn’t really make any sense, because
the Han people haven’t spoken a single mutually-intelligible language in hundreds of years. As far as I
can tell the phrase “Han-yu” basically refers to any of the languages the Han people
speak, which is less of a language and more of a language family. Only one of these modern
languages is officially used by the government of China, and that’s the one that evolved
in the capital, Beijing. A century ago this language was called “guanhua” or “the
language of officials,” but, somewhat hilariously, today the official name for it is “putonghua”
or “common language.” Like, in the 1950s after the Communist party took over there
were calls to use a different official language because guanhua was too bourgeois or whatever,
but they couldn’t agree on what exactly to replace it with so they just slapped a
new proletariat-y label on it and hoped no one would notice. In English we call it “Mandarin”
because the Malay word for “government official” was “mantri” and the Chinese were calling
it “the language of government officials” so we just started using that … by translating
it into Malay first, I guess… I’m honestly not really sure what happened here.
But yeah, it’s not like the idea of the nation state was perfect to begin with, but
it’s an especially awkward fit on China. A big thing I didn’t mention was how there
are currently two different countries claiming the title of “Zhonguo,” and there’s
also some city states which are kind-of-sort-of part of the country but not really, but plenty
of other people have made videos about that so I’m gonna stop here.




Comments
  1. Actually Zhou is a place in Ancient China, the ruling family adopted it as their family name. It's like how the Roman Empire is named after the city Rome. Eventually, the Qin Dynasty unified "China" which could mean the civilization in this case, much like how Ancient Greek Civilization is a collection of city states yet we call all of them Greeks(eventually they unified themselves as well and called themselves Hellas and spread the Hellenistic civilization), the civilization became unified into a state, so it became a "civilization state." And so at this point, China means both the state/country and the civilization. However, a civilization can also encompass various nations, much like how Western Civilization refers to various European nations. At this point in time, China also merged different groups of people/nation over time as well and everyone who is assimilated became Han Chinese(can't really call this an ethnicity even, more like a cultural group of people) and those who are not assimilated are ethnic minorities, and so it became a nation(for the most part) now as well.

  2. First of all, you need to know that the Qin Dynasty unified Chinese characters, units of measure, and all the separate states that you said, but you seem to avoid mentioning them in the video. The emperor of the Qin Dynasty claimed to be the "first emperor", which has already shown that China's first unified country already exists. In addition, if you are ignorant and think that "China" is just like the ignorant words of "free country", I advise you to google China and Taiwan's full name "People's Republic of China(中华人民共和国)" and "Republic of China(中华民国)", you will know that China is not only means "中国" (the middle country) in chinese, it is "中华" but english cann't translate its difference. We also call ourselves “华人”(Chinese). you need to prepare more information before do video.

  3. Several issues: 1. The kings of the Zhou Dynasty didn't have the surname Zhou. They CHANGED it to Zhou AFTER the dynasty fell. So the Kingdom ruled by Obama wouldn't have been called Obama, but whatever word Obama wanted to use to call the dynasty. Not to mention naming the dynasty after the surname is literally the European way of doing things. I don't see how you'd find it anything unusual (albeit wrong anyway).
    2. Japan, for the longest time, did call China "China". It has become known as a derogative term but has been appropriated by many, including many Hongkongese people to refer to our new colonial masters.
    3. "Han" people is the term in English and at most the term used by people in northern China. The term "Wah"/"Hua" people is a lot more common within Greater China, with the term "Tong"/"Tang" (after Tang Dynasty) being the preferred term in Canton, Hong Kong, and Macau.
    4. Similarly, no-one really says "Han" language. Singaporeans say "Hua" language, Hong Kong and Macau say "Putonghua" ("common tongue"), China says Chinese ("Middle Language"), Taiwan says "National Language".
    5. People in Zhou and Han wouldn't have been speaking in Mandarin, thus those so-called Chinese pronunciations of the dynasties wouldn't have been accurate.

    An interesting thing also to note is that whilst it's true that the idea of a nation-state was introduced by Europeans to China, it was introduced when China was actually ruled by the minority Manchus, instead of what we today consider Han Chinese people. This means even though Qing China went around internationally started calling themselves "China" diplomatically, they clearly didn't see it as a term for the Chinese nation-state (not actually being Chinese themselves).

  4. 2 things:

    1. The Malay word for “government official” is “Menteri”. “Mantri”, from which we probably derived the Malay word, is Sanskrit.

    2. “Malay” is pronounced with “Mal-“ as in “Malignant”. Not “May-lay” as you said.

  5. Tbh the different "languages" are actually just heavily modfied accents, like how in Beijing people sometimes add "er" to the end or a word or character.

  6. France doesn’t have 1 language and peoples it has about 4, Langue d’oc, Langue d’oïl, Breton, and Basque in a small portion of the south west of France, most widely used language that we refer to as French which the majority of French speak is called Langue d’oïl sorry for nitpicking it just pinched me a little and I like to play devil’s advocate

  7. Same for India. It is very uniquely geographically isolated from the rest of the world and always had some emperor who wanted to rule over the whole of the subcontinent at the same time. Modern Indian national identity is very recent. My grandparents for instance wouldn't understand it. But there is a common history, and shared cultural elements.

  8. Good video. But as a Malaysian (Chinese) I have to apologise since I was cringing at all the pronunciations

  9. I think it's cool that China was basically isolated from the rest of the world until 126 BC, and so has a long history developed independent of external influence.

  10. Very nice video. There's a big issue with the argument presented though — it conveniently ignores the Qin.

    The Qin, as unifiers of China after the Zhou dynasty collapsed into several centuries of warring states, were… not exactly Zhou themselves. The were a frontier march of the Zhou, considered 'barbarians' by the central plains states, until they unified China under their rule and committed enough genocide till everyone agreed with their language and laws. That being said, Chinese language didn't so much diverge… it never converged. The Qin standardized the writing system, but not the speech, which remains the case today.

    I highly suggest checking out Martin Jacques' theory that China isn't a "nation-state" but a "civilization-state", which predates the nation-state concept and explains why Chinese people can view others as Chinese regardless of their actual nationality.

  11. "Mantri" is a "Marathi" word which comes from "Sanskrit" language. It means minister and in "Hindi" and "Marathi" we write it like this "मंत्री"

  12. I see a lot of comments about the main subject of your video…which I know nothing about and found your explanation helpful.

    But your music notes (8ths) are backward.

    Sorry, I know YouTube comments need to contain something nit-picky. Thought I'd get that out of the way.

  13. France is quite the exception tbh, as it's still one of the most monolingual countries in the world. Even in Europe, most countries recognize several national languages.

  14. Too much bullshit. When I am using evaluation criteria on China, all the countries didn't exist. Do you know the history or blood tie of USA, UK, France, Germany, etc? They are not purer than China at all. The national identity always came from international communication or war war. We got endless war with north Barbarian nomad. Of course, the Chinese (name doesn't matter) self identity already established long long ago in Han Dynasty with great achievement and cruel war. The boundaries between Chinese and barbarians is always super clear. 华夷之辨 is always a core part of Chinese culture.

  15. Hey hey hey. Why in the fuck was Australia highlighted as part of the free world but not New Zealand? We're a hell of a lot freer than a lot of people in the US that's for sure.

  16. the original meaning of 國 is settlement with wall. first time the
    word 中國 appeared in history book is in this sentsnce 天子居中國. which means the son of the sky(means the governer of course) lives in the cetral 國, among all 國s. I think Zhou people may quite good at building these kind of settlements. so they moved out from their original place and built 國s all around China. a 國 is like a colony. the Zhou people lived in 國 called themselves 國人, which means people live in 國, and they called the native peole lived out of 國 野人, which means people live in field. By conquering the native people lived around Zhou people's settlements, the territories of these colonies expanded. This progress also changes the meaning of 國, which means a state then.fun fact, the meaning of the word 野人 I just mentioned also changed to uncivilized people, or barbarians. 🙂

  17. Small brain: accept serbia into eu
    Medium brain: accept kazakhstan to eu
    Slightly big brain with guy meditating: accept russia into eu
    Big brain with flames and guy meditating in space: accept china into eu
    Man meditating in a different universe with an overly large brain with his brain on flames and is thinking about the abomination he has caused: accept turkey into eu

  18. I dunno, this sounds kind of dubious. As ancient nation states go, China was by far the most state-y for thousands of years. Single central bureaucracy, single written system, centralised ruler, semi-centralised Confucian philosophy. The things I have read indicate that China came up with most of the aspects of a modern nation state about a thousand years before any European state. European states were just as divided in terms of language and rulership until around the age of Enlightenment and had far less sophisticated and centralised bureaucracies. Long story short, if there is anywhere in pre-industrial times which we can actually draw a border around and say "this is one place", it's China.

  19. I think the name "China" comes from "zhõngguó". If you look, how it's spoken, it would be more comparable: "zhõngguó" is (transscripted in english spelling) spoken "chonggua" which looks more like "China".

  20. 1.中国means between the land and the sky
    2.周is pernounced zhou,what you pernounced is 赵
    3.汉is the ethic group
    4.China is a english word, we call our self 中国人

  21. Me in Hong Kong: You people are so lucky to not have to go through all these Chinese History like I have to

  22. When you say China doesn't exist, you mean the word english word "China" right? I mean China as a nation does exist…

  23. Wrong example. France isn't a nation state, but a hegemony. It means that only the major, most powerful culture has a legal state, that crushes the others, but that's not the only one. We have whole non-french communities : breton, basque, alsacian, Ardennes' dutch, corsican, catalan, occitan, but also caló and romani within the wide Gitans community. That's way worse than England (US is special, but it's not really a nation state so…) And I'm only talking about the metropole, the extracontinental c̶o̶l̶o̶n̶i̶e̶s̶ territories have many poor crushed languages too.
    Some of them (especially Breton) aren't even related to french at all nor another nearby territory's language, and thus are entire nations under the french's state.
    I'm french and used to be proud of that, but I must grant that our state is a total asshole. No one should claim that nation state of France as an actual thing because it's at best ignorant.

  24. My theory is at 3:01 where he said languages were diverging and Chinese and Korean First I think china calls itself hanguo cause of the Han dynasty and second Korea calls china Jungug from the Zhou dynasty "Zhongguo"

  25. I'm coming back here to say, you have really sparked my interest in language. The idea of a language without the specification of singular and plural words is just incredible.

  26. China technically started when ROC started , but it's already formed since Xia , then Shang , Zhou…Qing

  27. Me'm frequently dismayed by the apparent Death of Distinction between the English pronouns he and him, and I and me. Even educated speakers uses they incorrectly. Or maybe this are just another simplification of the language. [Him and me are going to the movies. Us is going to the movies. It are me. It am I.] My kids say, "but dad, that's how people talk." Me'm probably just about the only one who notices, or who thinks this things sound wrong, and since me is 75 years old, me'll probably are dead soon. And then nobody is care. Maybe you has a video about this? Maybe someone could let I know?

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