A quick look at how China got the name 'Middle Kingdom'.
China is one of the oldest cultures in the entire world with a rich history that dates back for thousands of years.
Throughout the last 5000 years, China has been known by many different names but the most traditional name that China has used to refer to itself is Zhonggou which means Middle Kingdom (or sometimes translated as Central Kingdom).
A literal translation of the term "Zhongguo" is "middle kingdom". Some Western writers use the translation "central kingdom" to imply that China has a deeply rooted self-centered psychology as the center of the universe. Endymion Wilkinson denies that the Chinese were unique in thinking of their country as central, although China was the only culture to use the concept for their name. Regarding the accuracy of the translation, Professor Chen Jian writes: "I believe that 'Central Kingdom' is a more accurate translation for 'Zhong Guo' (China) than 'Middle Kingdom'. The term 'Middle Kingdom' does not imply that China is superior to other peoples and nations around it — China just happens to be located in the middle geographically; the term 'Central Kingdom', however, implies that China is superior to any other people and nation 'under the heaven' and that it thus occupies a 'central' position in the known universe.
The name China is recorded in English from the mid 16th century. It is of uncertain origin; it is thought to come from Middle Persian, but ultimately may have originated as the name for the Qin state that later formed the Qin dynasty. In Chinese, common names for China include Zhongguo (中國/中国) and Zhonghua (中華/中华), while Han (漢/汉) and Tang (唐) are common names given for the Chinese ethnicity. Other names include Huaxia (華夏/华夏), Shenzhou (神州) and Jiuzhou (九州). The People's Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó) and Republic of China (Zhōnghuá Mínguó) are the official names for the two contemporary sovereign states currently claiming sovereignty over the traditional area of China. "Mainland China" is used to refer to areas under the jurisdiction by the PRC usually excluding Hong Kong and Macau.
Zhongguo is the most common sinitic name for China. The first character zhōng (中) means "central" or "middle," while guó (國/国) means "state" or "states," and in modern times, "nation." In ancient usage, the term referred to the "Central States" of the period before the unification of the empire; the connotation was the primacy of a culturally distinct core area, centered on the Yellow River valley, as distinguished from the tribes of the periphery. In later periods, however, Zhongguo was not used in this sense; rather, the country was called by the name of the dynasty, such as "The Great Ming," "The Great Qing," as the case might be.
The term "zhōngguó" (中國) first appeared in text form in the Classic of History as the name for "the centre of civilization" or "Tianxia", depending on the interpretation. The first appearance of 中國 in an artifact was in the Western Zhou vessel He zun.
The general concept of the term "zhōngguó" originated from the belief that the Zhou dynasty was the "center of civilization" or "center of the world." However, there are different uses of the term "zhōngguó" in every period. It could refer to the guó (capital) of the Emperor, to distinguish from the guó of his vassals, as in Western Zhou; or it could refer to states in the central plain, to distinguish from states in outer regions. By the Han dynasty, three usages of "Zhōngguó" are common. The Book of Poetry explicitly defines "Zhōngguó" as the capital; the Records of the Grand Historian uses the concept zhong to indicate the center of civilization: "Eight famous mountains are there in Tianxia. Three are in Man and Yi. Five are in Zhōnghuá." The Records of the Three Kingdoms uses the concept of the central states in "Zhōnghuá", or the states in "Zhōnghuá" which is the center, depending on the interpretation. It records the following exhortation: "If we can lead the host of Wu and Yue to oppose Zhōngguó, then let us break off relations with them soon." In this sense, the term Zhōngguó is synonymous with Zhōnghuá (中華/中华) and Huáxià (華夏/华夏), a name for "China" that comes from the Xia dynasty.
The name Huaxia (華夏/华夏; pinyin: huáxià), generally used as a sobriquet in Chinese text, is the combination of two words:
Hua which means "flowery beauty" (i.e. having beauty of dress and personal adornment 有服章之美，謂之華).
Xia which means "greatness, grandeur" (i.e. having greatness of social customs/courtesy/polite manners and rites/ceremony 有禮儀之大，故稱夏).
These two terms originally referred to the elegance of the traditional attire of the Han Chinese (漢服 Hàn fú, or simply 衣冠Yī guān, literally clothes and headgear) and the Confucian concept of rituals (禮/礼 lǐ). In the original sense, Huaxia refers to a confederation of tribes—living along the Yellow River—who were the ancestors of what later became the Han ethnic group in China. During the Warring States (475–221 BCE), the self-awareness of the Huaxia identity developed and took hold in ancient China.
Thousands of years ago, China was divided into multiple independent states before it was unified by an emperor. During this period, the term Middle Kingdom or Central State was used to refer to the actual middle areas of these states. The term reflected the culturally significant regions of China that was located along the valley of the Yellow River.
In later years after China became more of a unified Empire, Middle Kingdom referred to the region in which the emperor lived which ultimately meant that the Middle Kingdom was actually a dynamic, shifting region depending on the period of history you look at and which emperor was ruling.
As time passed, the term Middle Kingdom referred to the entire country as a whole instead of a small area within China itself.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, the term Middle Kingdom shifted to mean the country as a whole instead of describing individual states in an attempt to give solidarity to the Chinese people.
By referring to their country as the Middle Kingdom, the people of China imply their significance in the world and use the term as a form of pride to be a collective group and single nation.
So ultimately the answer to the question why is China called the Middle Kingdom is an answer that shifts throughout history, from referring to a small collective region to eventually encompassing the nation and its people as a whole.
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