Last Updated on August 18, 2017
This is a fascinating topic to me. Did you ever wonder the meaning of country names in Chinese? Usually, names of foreign countries in Chinese are phonetic, and sometimes the characters that Chinese people picked are very interesting for countries’ names in Chinese.
The transliterations that I am using are Mandarin, but the characters for all other Chinese dialects of all of these countries should be the same (Traditional Characters of course might be slightly different). If the Traditional version differs from the simplified version, then the Traditional version will be in parentheses.
Country Names In Chinese
Germany 德国 (德國) dé guó In Chinese it means country of morality. (Literally, moral country). I think they must have chosen the sound de, because in German, the word for Germany is Deutschland.
France 法国 (法國) fǎ guó, country of law. (Literally, law country)
United Kingdom 英国 (英國) Country of heroes, or possibly country of flowers. (Literally, hero country). Another cool name they could have chosen for the UK would have been 赢国 (贏國) being yíng guó, and this ying meaning to win, profit, or succeed.
America 美国 (美國) měi guó beautiful country or country of beauty. (Literally, beautiful country)
Canada 加拿大 jiā ná dà (Literally, add hold big).
Singapore 新加坡 xīn jiā pō (Literally, new add slope).
Malaysia 马来西亚 (馬來西亞) mǎ lái xī yà (Literally, horse come west Asia)
Thailand 泰国 (泰國) tài guó Country of peace. (Literally, peace country)
Vietnam 越南 yuè nán. Depending on the context, this yue can mean to succeed, go past, or something like that. The nan means south. To me, the nan meaning south makes sense because Vietnam is south of China. I will go out on a limb here, and ignore the nan meaning south, and just translate Vietnam as “the exceed yourself country”. (Literally, succeed south)
Holland 荷兰 (荷蘭) hé lán According to Wikipedia, the lan in this word is in the name of the legendary female Chinese general and heroine, Hua Mulan 花木兰 (花木蘭). So, I would say that in Chinese, Holland could be called the country of Lotus flowers and Orchid flowers.
Ireland 爱尔兰 (愛爾蘭) ài ěr lán 爱尔 Is a formal or maybe ancient way of saying “love you”. The er here is an archaic way of saying “you”. Something like saying “thou” in English. And the lan means orchid flowers. So, I would say Ireland in Chinese means “love you country with orchid flowers.” (Literally, love you(archaic) orchid flowers)
Italy 意大利 yì dà lì. This yi here can mean many things, but is possibly most common in the word for meaning, 意思. Most commonly in Chinese they say 什么意思. Like in English, you could ask, what meaning does this have? So ignoring the first character in Italy, because it is just used for sound, I would say Italy translates as great profit, or you could add “the country of great profit.” (Literally, meaning great profit)
Russia 俄罗斯 (俄斯) é luó sī. Often abbreviated as 俄国 (俄國) é guó. The character for e, in the vast majority of cases, means Russia.
New Zealand 新西兰 xīn xī lán (“new”, “west”, “orchid flower”) Or you could also translated it as “New Western Orchid Flower or New Western Country with Orchid flowers” (Literally, new west orchid flowers)
China 中国 中國) zhōng guó. Translates as Middle Country or Middle Kingdom. The middle here, based on the right context, would be sort of country at the centre of the world, or the country at the centre of civilisation. (Literally, middle kingdom)
Japan 日本 rì běn Sun source, or source of the sun. Or country of the rising sun. These are the same characters that the Japanese use to call their country, but of course they use their own language, Japanese, and use different pronunciation for the two characters. The Japanese call their country Nihon or Nippon in Japanese. (Literally, sun source)
Korea 韩国 (韓國) hán guó . The first character in the vast majority of cases, just means Korea or Korean. These are the same characters the Koreans use to call their country. In Korean, to say Korea you say 한국or han gug. To say the Republic of Korea (South Korea), you say 대한민국 or dae han min gug.
Mexico 墨西哥 Mòxīgē. Individually, the characters mean “ink”, “west” and “older brother”
Brazil 巴西 bā xī Here ba is used just for sound, and the xi means west.
Spain 西班牙 xī bān yá (Literally, west, class, tooth).
Portugal 葡萄牙 pú táo yá 葡萄 (Literally, grape tooth)
India 印度 yìn dù. Yin here can mean to print, or a seal (used on paper), depending on the context. The du is commonly used as degrees, as in like 50 degrees C. China’s most popular site, Baidu, uses this character. Baidu, in Chinese is 百度 literally means 100 degrees. So, India means literally, print degrees.
Indonesia 印度尼西亚 (印度尼西亞) yìn dù ní xī yà. The abbreviated form is 印尼 yìn ní. The yin here is the same one as in India. Ni here means Buddhist nun. (Literally print, degrees, Buddhist nun, west, Asia).
The Philippines 菲律宾 (菲律賓) Fēi lǜb bīn. Note that lü4 has the “umlaut” sound like in French or German. The first character 菲 (fei1) is mainly just used as an abbreviation for the Philippines by itself. 律 (lü4) means law, and is part of the word for lawyer 律師 (lü4 shi1). 賓 (bin1) means guest. So, if you ignore the 1st character which is mainly just an abbreviation character, and take the second two characters, they literally mean “law guest”.
Comments About How Many Foreign Countries Were Transliterated Into Chinese
There are many countries whose names were transliterated into Chinese, purely based on sound. If you look at the characters individually, it kind of seems like nonsense, unless you understand that it was very likely a transliteration. Mandarin Chinese has very few sounds compared to many European languages, so very often the transliterations are a very, very rough approximation.
It is pretty obvious to me, that the names of many of the countries in the world in Chinese, are by design by the Chinese, and did not happen by accident. In the 17th, 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries, the superpowers of the world were the European powers. It was later, in the 1800’s that the U.S. got into the superpower and imperial game. Since there are so many ways to transliterate a country name in Chinese, possibly hundreds of different ways, why not pick one that kind of flatters the person whom you are talking to?
It certainly must be good for business at the very least.
I am not sure what the Chinese called the various European countries in the very far past, like for example when Marco Polo went to China (or at least as the legends about him go). Maybe, they simply didn’t have names for those countries because they didn’t know about them. Something similar to how it is said that Alexander the Great, conquered the known world, at least the world known to the Ancient Greeks, but he might not have know about the Far East.
So, based purely on how foreign countries are translated and transliterated into Chinese and nothing else, would you rather be from the beautiful country, the country of morality, the country of law, the country of heroes, the country of peace, the exceed yourself country, the country of lotus flowers and orchid flowers, the love you country with orchid flowers, the country of great profit, the Middle Kingdom, New Western Country with Orchid flowers, or the country of the rising sun?…