The word “中国 (China)” was first discovered on a bronze ware, which archaeologists called “He Zun”. It was discovered in 1963 in Baoji，in Shaanxi Province.
Two words appear on the inscription engraved on this bronze ware, which is the earliest “中国” we see now. The inscription describes the history which is: After conquering the capital of the Shang Dynasty, King WU held a ceremony to announce the world that he owned this country and would dominate the population.
Both “中”, “国” two characters were pictographs at first. “中” was originally a flag, which was used by the Shang Dynasty to gather his troops and people. Since the flag is always in the middle when people assembled, the meaning of “center”, “core” and “the most important” was derived later.
“国” (“國” in traditional Chinese) is also a pictograph. “口(mouth)” in the middle means a person, and several “口” indicate a few people, which is called population. A horizontal bar under the “口” indicates a piece of land, no matter life or production, people cannot be separated from its own land, so someone has to defend it with a dragger-axe (“戈”). And in order to be safer, a wall needs to be built around the population and their land. Therefore, the country is actually surrounded by walls, with people guarding a residential area, a settlement or a city. It is known as the country in ancient times.
“中国” means the central and most important country in a large number of countries. There are many countries in Shang Dynasty and Western Zhou Dynasty, and more than 1000 in the early Spring and Autumn period. Who is eligible to be called “中国” among so many countries? Only where the supreme rulers live, such as the King of Shang Dynasty and later that of Zhou Dynasty, are qualified to be called “中国”, and “中国” is the country where the emperor or which we called “the son of God” located.
However, in the Eastern Zhou Dynasty, the emperor’s status existed in name only, and the Vassal States annexed each other. The number of States was falling off, but the land was getting larger and larger. In the late Warring States period, only Qin, Chu, Qi, Yan, Han, Zhao, Wei and other small States remained, they all positioned themselves as “中国”. In 221 B.C., the first emperor of Qin unified the six kingdoms and established the Qin Dynasty as the emperor. Naturally, he also called his country “中国”. And after that, each dynasty in Chinese history all claimed to be “中国”, even the ethnic minorities who settled in the Central Plains, or the regime closely related to the Central Plains. The concept of “中国” expanded to the whole country, even including the regime of ethnic minorities in border areas. For example, when the Qidan people built the Liao Dynasty, they also considered themselves to be part of China. During the Northern and Southern Dynasties, both of them referred to themselves as “中国”, while they called each other “savage”. After the unification of the Sui and Tang Dynasties, they all became part of “中国”. “中国” has actually become a synonym of the country, while each dynasty has its own title of dynasty, such as the Qing Dynasty called “大清” （the Great Qing）.
Since the founding of the Republic of China in 1912, there have been two abbreviations of “中华” and “中国”. After that, “中国” has been used in general.
In ancient times, China refers to the Han nationality and Han culture, excluding other ethnic groups. Today, all the 56 ethnic groups make up the Chinese nation, and Chinese culture includes each of their traditional culture.
Historically, China’s geographical concept is often equated with the Central Plains, but there is no obvious boundary. Henan Province, or even a larger area, such as Shandong, Shanxi, Shaanxi, Hebei, Anhui, etc. all of them can be part of Central Plains.
The word “中国” has developed more than 3000 years, it is closely related to China’s territory, population, nationality, culture and history. China is not simply a geographical concept of thousands of square kilometers, it is a national and cultural concept, a living history of national development.
– Learn Chinese and Trip in China at RISH Chinese Summer Camp.