What does zhōngguó 中國 mean? An Approach from Zhan Guo Ce 戰國策.



Javier Caramés Sánchez 


In this entry I will discuss what does zhōngguó 中國 mean in the Zhan Guo Ce. It should be not translated as “China” but as “central states”. I will analyse the content of a series of quotations from Zhan Guo Ce in which this term is mentioned. As Yuri Pines states, the Chinese barbarian condition was not an inborn quality but a matter of cultivation[1]. In other words, the difference between the Chinese and the barbarian is related to a set of values and customs and not racial features. It can be observed in the following text:


I have heard that the central states is where intelligence and wisdom reside, is where the ten thousand things and riches come together, is where the virtuous and the wise transmit their teachings, is where benevolence and righteousness are shown, is where the doctrine of the Books of Poetry, History, Etiquette and Music is followed, is where extraordinary arts are used, is where the people from far away hope to came, is what the barbarian consider good behaviour. Now, Your Majesty rejects it, establishes the clothing of distant places, changes the teaching of the ancients, replaces its way, opposes the heart-mind of the people, studies bad things and leaves the central states. I would wish that Your Majesty thinks about it[2].


For this reason, if the ruler does not establishes strange clothes, the central states will not be closer to the behaviour of the barbarians. It is not what is used to teach people to become instructed in the etiquette[3].


All the white hair persuaders from the central states with a lot of knowledge want to leave the alliance between Qin and Han[4].

The central states are seen as a reference for civilization. It is the place associated with knowledge, morality and technique. In the Zhan Guo Ce it can be observed that the central states, despite having received the influence of a single master (Confucius), have different etiquettes lǐ 禮:


The Confucians has the same teacher but different notions of the etiquette, the central states have similar custom but different teaching[5].

The habits of central states are seen by the king of Zhao Wuling 武靈王 as old fashioned and should be changed:


I do not expect you to obey the customs of the central states, to go against the intentions of Jian and Xiang, to criticize my orders of changing clothes with the shame of forgetting the affairs of the state[6].

What countries are these central states that are the origin of this culture of reference for others? These central states are the kingdoms of the central plain: Qi, Wei and Han:


If Your Majesty destroys Chu, you will to enrich Han and Wei in the central countries,  Qi will became stronger and Han and Wei will have enough power to resist Qin[7].


For this reason, if Qin captures Qi, his power will grow in the central states. If Zhao, Wei and Chu capture Qi, they will have enough strength to be the enemy of Qin[15].

Song it is also consider a part of the central states:


Song is a prosperous land among the central states. It is also a place of confluence of neighbouring people. It is better to conquer ten li in Song than to conquer it in Yan[8].

The king of Chu was a non-central state:


The king of Chu said: « Chu is a remote and humble place in where women such beautiful as the women from central states have never been seen[9]


Now, if you are minister of the kingdom of Chu and you repels the attacks from the central states, you will became what you wish and you will not get what you seek[10].

Qin was also a non-central state:


If the central states do not have affairs in Qin, then Qin will ferocious capture your country. If the central states have affairs in Qin, then Qin will underestimate the diplomacy and overvalue the presents. For this reason, he will serve my lord’s country[11].


You (the Lord of Rang from Qin) will not have any disasters in many generations if you are able to destroy Qi, to gives fiefs, to be called lord of ten thousand carriage and do to diplomatic missions inside the feudal lords of the central states and have you south frontier with Tao[13].

According with the exegesis of Yokota Koretaka 橫田惟孝, the central state means the feudal lords of Shandong 山東[12]. In ancients text Shandong alluded to the area at the east of the mountains Xiao 崤 and Hua 華. These central states were a strategic point for Qin; they must be conquered in order to become more powerful:


Now, Han and Wei are situated in the central states and the pillar of what is under the Heaven. If Your Majesty wishes become hegemon, you must be close to the central countries and consider it the pillar of all under the Heaven in order to menaces Chu and Zhao[14].


If  all under the Heaven fights with Qin, the king of Qin will be close to the king with the see (Qi). If Qi abandon the Hezong Alliance, Qin will get a central state and will seek profit in Wei, Han and Zhao.[16]

The central states are the basic pillar of what is under the Heaven. Because of it, Qin should be having influence in this region to defeat their enemies.

In Sum, zhōngguó 中國 is refers to the states of the central plain: Han, Wei, Qi and Song. These states are seen as a centre of power that should be under control. They are also lands whose morals values are a reference for the rest of all under the Heaven. The kingdoms of Qin and Chu are systematically excluded from the central states.  As we have seen, the king of Qin does not consider himself part of the central states. Central states are the target of his armies. If Qin conquers it, it will have the hegemony over all under the Heaven tiānxià 天下.



[2] Zhan Guo Ce, 19-4. All the translations of this entry were done by me.

[3] Zhan Guo Ce, 19-4.

[4] Zhan Guo Ce, 28.3

[5] Zhan Guo Ce, 19-4

[6] Zhan Guo Ce, 19-4

[7] Zhan Guo Ce, 6-7

[8] Zhan Guo Ce, 30-12

[9] Zhan Guo Ce, 16-4

[10] Zhan Guo Ce, 16-10

[11] Zhan Guo Ce, 4-4

[12] Fan Xiangyong 范祥雍 and Fan Bangjin 范邦瑾, Zhan Guo Ce Jianzheng 戰國策箋證 (Shanghái: Shanghai Guji Chubanshe 上海古籍出版社, 2006)., p.247

[13] Zhan Guo Ce, 5-2

[14] Zhan Guo Ce, 5-9

[15] Zhan Guo Ce, 10-12

[16] Zhan Guo Ce, 21.4

2 comentarios sobre “What does zhōngguó 中國 mean? An Approach from Zhan Guo Ce 戰國策.

  1. Dear Javier,

    First of all, let me to contratulate for your article. I just want to share some thoughts with you.

    For me, this entry is really insightful, since it deals with two of the most important concepts in ancient China in my opinion: tiānxià 天下 and zhōngguó 中國. By reading this article, it seems that China has not a direct translation and it should be between tiānxià 天下 and zhōngguó 中國.

    The foundations of Chinese culture were developed during 戰國時代, that is why is so important to analyze these concepts during that period. It seems to me that zhōngguó 中國 is related with bureocratic states that have similarities (Qi, Han, Wei, Song), while tiānxià 天下 is a broader concept including all the territory that a son of heaven 天子 is legitimized to rule.

    Moreover, this article makes me think that during that period the decetralization of the territory related to tiānxià 天下 was very high, with a strong separation between bureocracy and people.

    Le gusta a 1 persona

  2. Thank You for your comments. I agree with you. There is a term that may be translate as China in classical period. In fact, the fist time that 中國 appears as a name of a country was in the Treaty of Nerchinsk in 1689 (a treaty between Rusia and China) 中國 it was refer to the Qing Dynasty. 中國 in latter texts was referring to the power center from where 天下 was ruling.

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