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美国 měi guó, is beautiful !

In Chinese, the United States is 美国 měi guó, a country of beauty; France 法国 fǎguó , a country of laws; England 英国 yīngguó, a country of heroes; Germany 德国 deguó, a country of morality. How were they translated into Chinese, these names of foreign countries?

At the end of the Ming Dynasty, at the beginning of the 17th century, there were European missionaries in China. The first translations of countries' names were phonetic, and as the exchanges took place mainly in the South-East of China, the pronunciation had a strong Cantonese accent and the Chinese characters chosen often contained the stem 口 kǒu to recall the phonetic origin of the translation, for example Italy is 噫咑喇哑呶 yī dā lǎ yǎ náo.

Around the period of the Opium Wars (1839-1942, 1856-1860), there were feelings of hostility towards foreign countries. At that time, the names of foreign countries often ended in “夷 yí” or “酋 qiú” = “the wild tribes”.

After losing the Opium Wars, the Qing Dynasty government signed a series of treaties with European countries and the United States. It was the beginning of the formalization of the names of foreign countries in Chinese. From now on, diplomacy, respect and politeness prevail, “国 guó” has replaced “夷 yí”. Note that “国 guó” is mostly used as an abbreviation. The full names of foreign countries are always mostly translated according to their phonetic pronunciation and the Chinese characters have been chosen carefully. France is translated into 法兰西 fǎlánxī, abbreviated as 法国 fǎguó; United States, 美利坚 měilìjiān 美国 měi guó ; England, 英格兰 yīnggélán 英国 yīngguó ; Germany, 德意志 déyìzhì 德国 deguó.

The countries, which historically have been influenced by Confucianism, keep their names of Chinese origin often indicating their geographical position: Vietnam, 越南 yuè nán, the country beyond the south; Japan, 日本 Rì běn, the country of the rising sun; North and South Korea, 朝鲜 cháoxiān, the country where the sun shines in the morning.

Xiao Ling and Lao Long explain more détails in the video hereunder.

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