Saturday, June 9, 2018

Stick to the Middle


Pyrrhus of Epirus

What's in a name?


Michel de Montaigne begins his essay Of Cannibals with a discussion of King Pyrrhus and his recollection of encounters with the Romans.

“Je ne sçay, dit-il, quels barbares sont ceux-ci (car les Grecs appelloyent ainsi toutes les nations estrangieres), mais la disposition de cette armée que je voy, n'est aucunement barbare.”

Roughly translated, that sentence comes out to this:

"I don't know, he says, what kind of barbarians these are (for so the Greeks called all the strange nations), but in the disposition of their armies that I see, there is no barbarity whatsoever."

To boil down the essence of the French essayist into a few words only is a difficult task, but Pyrrhus demonstrates the meat of Of Cannibals thousands of years prior to its original penning by an old french man. There’s a danger in ascribing barbarism or simplicity to a people that are not much known or known poorly within your group. Pyrrhus went on to be absolutely demolished in the course of his victories against the Romans, so much so that his name is associated with a type of victory that every military general has avoided ever since.

The Chinese have a history of mischaracterization outside of China. Take the word China itself as an instructive example, which is murky in its origins. Many westerners use the term sino or sin- in its root form to refer to things that are Chinese or related to China. The earliest use of this particular term is in an ancient Greek periplus showing all the hot trading spots for the adventurous sea or land trader. Essentially all of what is now called China was given the title θίν, or Thin, as if that was a real country and not something totally made up. We've also got the still popular word Sino, which traces its roots to both Latin and Ancient Greek, with a little Sanskrit or Arabic to spice things up. All of these different possible roots are interesting as a side note, but if you look them up in any respectable dictionary you'll get something along these lines:


THINAE (Thinai, or Sinai, Ptol. 7.3.6, 8.27.12), or THINA (Thina, Arrian, Per. M. Erythr. p. 36), a capital city of the Sinae, who carried on here a large commerce in silk and woollen stuffs. It appears to have been an ancient tradition that the city was surrounded with brazen walls; but Ptolemy remarks that these did not exist there, nor anything else worthy of remark. The ancient writers differ very considerably as to its situation. According to the most probable accounts it was either Nankin, or rather perhaps Thsin, Tin, or Tein, in the province Schensi, where, according to the accounts of the Chinese themselves, the first kingdom of Sin, or China, was founded. (Cf. Ritter, Erdkunde, ii. p. 199.)

Cool. So Ptolemy introduced the western world to the Chinese and, in effect, set us up to describe things as Sino this or Sino that. At this point, an astute reader will ask the most important question: who gives a hoot about why the Chinese are called Chinese? The reason I chose to describe the first encounter between the Romans and Pyrrhus is an instructive one: the barbarians had their own name.

China, for westerners, has often existed as little more than a novelty. When the Romans and Greeks were trading for silk from the far east, it was comically difficult to get an answer as to where the silk actually came from. The people buying silk that had originated from China often knew that it was from far away, but having traded hands many times before getting to the merchant they had only the most general sense of where it came from and who those original creators of the wonderful substance were. The ambiguity found in the etymological roots of the word China are not an accident, but rather the result of genuine confusion about where and what these people were.

Stubbornness prevails, however, and after centuries of repetition the name China stuck in the mind of westerners. Maybe, it is posited, the original westerner or middle easterner who met a Chinese trader or delegate met someone who pointed at himself and said Qin, referring to the dynasty he lived under. That, however, is not the same as saying what your country is called. To understand the comical level of misunderstanding that may have happened, it would be the equivalent of the Chinese referring to the Romans exclusively as the Julius people.

Still, though, the question can be posed: who cares what they're called? We all know what we mean when we say Chinese. First, I doubt that many people do understand, and second, it's generally considered nice to call someone by their actual name rather than something you misheard them say one time. To go on calling them that thing you heard them say one time for over two thousand years is, to say the least, rude.

Stuck in the Middle with You

What, then, do the Chinese like to call themselves? The answer is complicated, largely because China is both very large and has existed in some form or another for quite a while. Let us consider a few of the different names the people of China have gone by in the past, and ultimately come to what they call themselves now.

You've probably heard of the most common title for China: the Middle Kingdom. This is an important word for a few reasons, but first we will check out how it looks:
Culture Trivia Question: The Chinese refer to their own country as "Zhongguo". What does Zhongguo literally mean?
Neat. The pinyin for that is Zhōngguó. It's made up of two characters, as the discerning individual might have guessed. The first means central and the second means state. This can be (and normally is) translated as middle kingdom. Don't get ahead of yourself here, though, because there's a bit more backstory on what that means and when its been used. The short story is this: that particular term has been used for a long time, but often the ruling state (there were multiple, sometimes many, states at any given time) would just tell everyone to call the country they were in the name of the dynasty. This leads to things like the Qin, Tang, Xia, and more dynasties being talked about. I don't want to get into the nitty gritty too much on the entire history of the Middle Kingdom or the infinitude of names it has had, but suffice to say there were many over the last few thousand years. 

The CPC, known in the west as the CCP, named the country Zhōnghuá Rénmín Gònghéguó. The new guys, in an effort to distance themselves from the old guys (who also were bad and, according to Mao Thought, dumb), made it clear that the Middle Kingdom was now the Middle Kingdom People's Republic. The west, refusing to call the Middle Kingdom the Middle Kingdom, changed that to the People's Republic of China. In all honesty, it is baffling to me that we're all still collectively referring to China as China, seeing as Zhōngguó really isn't that hard to pronounce - and, if we're collectively unwilling to pronounce hard and different languages, I'm all for moving towards calling them the Middle Kingdom. The Middle Kingdom really just sounds a lot better, and it's also literally what they call themselves. 

Who Cares?

If you genuinely don't care at this point, I've failed in what I thought to be a fairly simple mission. With all the hubbub surrounding the rise of China, it seems that we still don't take the Middle Kingdom seriously. If the west is unwilling to know - or incapable of knowing - the most basic facts about what is shaping up to be the most important nation of the century, we're probably fucked. If the west is unable to understand the name of a place, how can it hope to understand the actions of that place?

This is just the first of what will likely be quite a few short posts on the Middle Kingdom. Hope you liked it. 

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