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Do I live in China, Cathay, Sino, or the Middle Kingdom?

WHAT IS THE NAME of this place that we are living in? In English, we say: China. But do a bit of study and one of the first things that we notice about the name China is that it is not Chinese, but from the Indian language Sanskrit, possibly derived from the 3rd century rulers, known as the Qin.

So why is the name China used? What about the other English names for this part of the world, Cathay and Sino? Indeed, we could ask: why do we have several terms for a single place?

Actually, this is actually a common issue in English. The English names for countries are often not the names that the country gives itself.

For Germans, there is no “Germany”; it is called Deutschland by its people. 

“Hungary” does not actually exist to its inhabitants, but Magyarország  does.

Similarly, the country of “Greece”, to Greeks, is not Greece, but Ελλάδα (pronounced Hellada).

This problem is so common that we have special words for it. The local name of a place is called an endonym and the name outsiders use is called an exonym. So “Deutschland” is the endonym and “Germany” is the exonym.


The name China went on to become china, with a small initial letter, used to describe a type of tableware. The highest quality of pottery is called porcelain. The finest porcelain in the world was called “China-porcelain” or “China-ware”. At first no one knew how to make it, except the Chinese potters. And they were not sharing their secrets! Eventually their methods were discovered separately, but by then the name had stuck, and that type of tableware is still known as china today.

China as a noun refers to fine porcelain. Photo by Jannet Serhan on Unsplash

The secret was that they used kaolin clay, which was found in the northeast of Jiangxi province. Kaolin clay or kaolinite is not unique to the place called Gaolin Shan, and is now mined in many other countries around the world. That is why distant foreign places, such as England, can be famous for making good china


There are more exonyms for this country in which we live. One we often see is Cathay, as in Cathay Pacific. The name Cathay is from the medieval Latin Cataya, which came from the Turkic name Khitāy.

Sino comes from the Arabic word for the country, Sin, which became the Greek word for the country, Σίναι, which became the Latin Sinae, and so Sino in English. 

Sino is seldom used as a proper noun like China. It’s generally only used in adjectival phrases such as The Sino-Japanese War.

The name closest to the Chinese name for China, (中國, pronounced Chong-guo or Junggwok) is the “Middle Kingdom”. In ancient times, as with most places, the people who lived there thought that they were the centre of the world. 

To sum up, China has many names. But almost a fifth of humanity has yet another name for it: home.

John Larrysson is the pen name of a Hong Kong educator and writer.

Image at the top by Fridayeveryday

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