Why do Chinese translate America as “The Beautiful Country?”

First written 01/20/2015.

It may be a nice feeling to know that, in Chinese, the United States of America is colloquially known as 美国 (meiguo), a word composed of two characters: the one for “Beauty” and one for “nation,” or “country.” This is, strictly speaking, not the official name, which is even more flattering: 美利坚合众国 (meilijian hezhongguo), or “The United States of Beauty, Advantage and Endurance.”

Why is this? If you ask this to the average Chinese person, they will probably respond: “well, it’s phonetic.” They will say that the character 美 not only has a positive meaning, but sounds the same as the second syllable of the nation’s name. This is following the same pattern for England, France and Germany (who are abbreviated by the characters for “Nobility,” “Lawfulness” and “Moral”).

But this answer leaves more questions. How come the U.S. is part of those four? Why that character specifically, when there are about a dozen other characters in Chinese with the same sound (including those for “berry,” “coal” and “mold”)? And what is so phonetic about this character to millions of Cantonese, Shanghainese and speakers of non-Mandarin languages in China who pronounce it in significantly different ways?

There is, it turns out, a lot of history behind this.


A. Parochialism.

It is the early 19th Century. China is still ruled by the Qing Dynasty, under whose rule has brought development to a standstill. The political system is backwards, Chinese society is wrestling with an opium epidemic, and there is fear of Western nations conquering China, what was supposed to be the center of the world. And, about three decades after the first American ships landed in Chinese ports, there are at least a dozen different Chinese names for the U.S. (pronunciation in modern Mandarin):

亚墨利加 (yamolijia); 亚墨理驾合众国 (yamolijia hezhonggguo; you’ve seen the second word, the first word sounds the same as first but different tones); 大亚美理驾合众国 (dayameilijia hezhongguo); 亚美利加兼合国 (yameilijia jianheguo); 兼摄邦国 (jianshe bangguo); 联邦国 (lianbangguo); 育奈士迭 (yunai shidie); 美理哥合省国 (meilige heshengguo); 咩哩干国(mieligan guo); 花旗国 (huaqi guo); 弥利坚国 (milijian guo); and 米利坚合众国 (milijian hezhongguo).

We won’t go through these names one by one, but trace the history around them.

The first of those names come from Matteo Ricci, a 16th Century Italian missionary. Serving under the Jesuits, he is arguably one of the most important Western visitors to China in history. Mastering vernacular and classical literary Chinese, he also brought with him the principles of European science and astronomy. Invited into the halls of the Emperor, he also reproduced for the Empire a world map, with his translation of the American continent: yamolijia. This was the canonical translation of the continent, a bizarre hinterland whose existence fascinated learned Chinese.

When American fleets first traversed to China in the late 18th Century, no connection between them and the continent was made. Travelling to Portuguese or Dutch bases in the far East, the Americans knew no Chinese and their translators knew nothing about the U.S. As the Qing regime only allowed foreigners access to the southern provinces of Canton, various names for these different foreigners emerged.

They were either various phonetic adaptations by the Cantonese, or they saw the Stars and Stripes and named it as from the “colourful flag country” (huaqi guo). One Chinese description of the Americans noted the mieligan guo, a country on an isolated island in the ocean, narrow in scope, culturally similar to the British but recently independent, whose explorers flew their flags throughout Canton. While the “colourful flag” name was crowded out in due time, it found a strange second life as the Chinese name for Citibank.

B. Imperialism.

By the 1830s, though, things started to change. On one hand, the first wave of American missionaries landed in China and learned the language. On another, fear of the “foreign barbarians” and of Qing society’s decay fueled the first wave of Chinese modernizers, who sought to “learn the barbarians’ skills to suppress the barbarians.” On some occasions, the two groups interacted.

While the British missionaries, stationed in Canton, translated America as the colourful flag country for popular audiences, two new arrivals stood out. Their names were Karl Guetzlaff and Elijah Coleman Bridgman. Both were on a team in Canton dedicated to a Chinese translation of the Bible, decried the opium epidemic and started publishing in Chinese on the positives of Western society. It was in Guetzlaff’s journal that he referred to America’s system of governance, as a lianheguo (“United country”).

The main event, however, was Bridgman. The first missionary representing an American organization in China, he landed in the thirties and spent his thirty remaining years studying China and liberalizing movement for foreigners. When it came to translating America’s name, his focus was on the best translation for “United States.” Simply calling it a “country” would not be enough for formal occasions. One option was jianshe bangguo, the first word roughly meaning “intervene” and the other “nation of tribes.” He also tried heshengguo, meaning “united provinces.” jianheguo meant “united country.”

Neither of these three were great. The first is supposed to evoke the idea of federalism, but sounds very awkward. The second confuses the idea of the Chinese province — a purely administrative unit — with America’s sovereign states. The last misses the subtlety of American federalism even further.

After switching back and forth between those options in earlier writings, Bridgman was assigned to a diplomatic role. This was the early fourties, and the United States planned to negotiate the first of many treaties guaranteeing rights to Americans in China. A network of missionaries in Canton served as translators for the U.S. legal delegation. Their requests — greater freedom of movement, protection for missionaries — were sealed into statute along with free trade arrangement.

While Bridgman was still using different transliterations between documents, the name signed on the Treaty of Wang Hiya of 1844 for the U.S. was dayameilijia hezhongguo. The “yameilijia” was Bridgman’s latest transliteration for “America,” and the “da,” meaning “Great,” could have been an added parallelism with the “Great Qing.” What was new was hezhongguo, literally meaning “country of united peoples,” a nice balance between evoking federalism and the idea of popular sovereignty. The name became the U.S.’s official name within the Qing government.

It is unknown which of the missionaries thought of that last descriptor; if it were Bridgman, though, he was not very happy with it. Throughout his life, he would continue to alternate between names, increasingly using words like lianbang, or “union of tribes,” a very direct reference to “federation.” You could wildly speculate if the Boston missionary was some sort of secret unionist.

In the next half century, China fought the Western powers in the Opium Wars over foreign shipment of the drug (and failed), tried to strengthen its navy (and failed), and saw attempts by the mandarins to transform the country into a constitutional monarchy (which failed). By the start of the 20th Century, China is roiled in foreign occupation, rebellion and peasant bloodletting.

The Western powers’ unmitigated military prowess and confidence can be seen in the Boxer Protocol, signed by an alliance of eight nations after they quashed the eponymous uprising. Every Western power is prefaced with “Great,” and America has shortened to meiguo, two characters with much more power than those of the defeated Qing.

C. Colonialism.

We’re jumping the gun somewhat, though. Among the Cantonese and Hokkien speakers on the southern coast, one name stuck around: milijian. This looks quite different from the mandarins’ translation (yameilijia), but rewrite it in the missionaries’ Romanization of Hokkien and you’ll see why it makes sense: meilikan, a transliteration of American. There was also a very awkward transliteration of “United States” (yunai shidie), but it is unsure if that was invented by foreign visitors or Chinese themselves.

Outside the Imperial court, a generation of minor officials lower in the bureaucracy system cast their hopes on the West. They didn’t care about the content of treaties signed with foreigners, but reeled from China’s recent demolition in the First Opium War. Amidst this existential crisis, two works were released that spread across intellectual circles: Wei Yuan’s Treatise on the Maritime Kingdoms and Xu Jiyu’s Abbreviated Records of the World.

Both were accounts pieced together from translated Western writings and accounts from foreigners living in southern port cities. They use the southern 弥利坚 or 米利坚, which is a minor detail alongside their exhaustive treatment of Western representative democracy. They spread to the highest circles and were instrumental in political reform, exciting reformers in the Court like Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao.

Though attempts at reforming the monarchy failed, this only led to greater radicalism in China’s South. A wide network of printing presses and salons built a network of revolutionaries, which erupted in the Xinhai revolution of 1911. In one year, the Qing Dynasty was deposed and the Republic of China was born.

The leaders of the RoC would have been called “Radical Republicans” only a few decades ago. Figures like President Sun Yat-Sen, writer Lu Xun or the newspaper writers believed the only solution to China’s problems was a total upheaval of politics, like the American and French Revolutions. And these new leaders combined the intellectuals’ name for the United States with the official laudatory abbreviation into 美利坚合众国.

The story does not end here — the Republic of China quickly dissolved into civil war and the People’s Republic of China took over — but a consensus had emerged. The U.S. became post-revolutionary China’s ally, cooperating with the RoC during its wars with Japan and the Communists and switching sides in the seventies. The PRC, by the eighties, have also standardized names for western countries to be used by the press. The usage of the official name and of the abbreviation is now ubiquitous by mandate.

APPENDIX: Why do Japanese translate America as the “rice country?”

I know Chinese; I have no knowledge of Japanese. But, as Japanese exposure to the U.S. came a bit later than the Chinese did, the historical processes driving what the Japanese did are similar.

For most of the past millennium, transfers of knowledge took place easily between China and Japan. The Middle Kingdom was the prosperous centre, while the Japanese absorbed Chinese language, religion and academic achievements. They were just as attentive of Matteo Ricci’s knowledge as the Chinese did, once his maps and writings were put into print. Thus they adopted his Chinese transliteration for America, pronounced and drawn slightly differently in Japanese: 亜墨利加 (Amokurika).

This is as good a time as ever to note that Japanese Kanji, Chinese characters inserted into their language, has multiple pronunciations. There is a “Japanese” pronunciation for them (Kun), but also a Japanese imitation of Middle Chinese pronunciation for them (On) and, for some, two different imitations of Chinese pronunciation, one from Northern Mandarin and another from the Southern Min languages. They can, hence, adopt Southern pronunciations with ease.

A decade before Commodore Perry’s opening of Japan, the works of Wei Yuan and Xu Jiyu were already published. They caught on in Japan, and Japanese envoys would search the cities for a copy. As a result, those books’ name for America (米利坚, or Meiriken) were used in Japan as well during the Meiji Restoration, the country’s rapid westernization in the late 19th Century.

While the first treaties signed with the U.S. used the name 亜墨利加合衆國 (Amokurika Gasshūkoku), the name was quickly replaced with 亜米利加合衆國 (Amerika Gasshūkoku). The first word in that (亚米利加) became the dominating formal name for the U.S. Meanwhile, the abbreviation became 米国, (Beikoku), taking the first letter of Meiriken like how the Japanese focused on the first letter of all their other western country transliterations. The character 米, not to mention its simplicity, also means “Rice.”

The usage of Beikoku, as far as I can tell, is popular but informal. Following the Second World War, it is custom to name all foreign country names in katakana, a non-logographic script. The U.S. itself adopted to the katakana standard during its administration of Japan in the fifties (so the official name is アメリカ, amerika)

There is another theory: General Chiang Kai-Shek, wartime leader of the Republic of China, said in a speech that there is a sinister reason why Japanese named America accordingly. Since rice is a common foodstuff, naming America after it was a threat that Japan will eat the United States up. But no one has to take this too seriously.

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