Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles Let me tell you guys a story. Once upon a time, there was a … let’s call it a state. It was a area, about here, all ruled by a group of people referred to as the “Zhou,” and as such the name of this state was also “Zhou.” Now, this might seem pretty strange to us, kind of like calling the United States “Obama” because that’s the last name of the guy in charge, but keep in mind this area might not have originally had any common identity besides that they were all ruled by the Zhou dynasty. They probably spoke different languages and had different cultures, but we can’t really know that for sure because they didn’t write anything down. The only people who wrote stuff down were the rich, educated elites, which is to say the Zhou themselves, who definitely did share a common language and culture. Somewhat annoyingly, they didn’t have a real name for their language besides just “the proper way to speak.” Now, there was a geographical term I should probably mention, “zhongguo.” This term was sometimes used to describe this country, region, place, but all it ment was “central state.” Or possibly “central states,” because this language doesn’t require you to specify whether things are singular or plural, but the point is, “zhongguo” was never a precise word, it was always just a kind of vague geographical description. It was a common assumption at the time that the center of the world was maximally civilized and that the further away you got from it the less civilized the people were, so “zhongguo” literally ment “the middle realm,” but implied “the most civilized realm.” It’s kind of like how in the US we sometimes call the president the “leader of the free world”. Do any of us actually have any idea what is and isn’t part of the “free world”? Definitely the US, probably the rest of NATO, and maybe “allies of the US” in general? Is Mexico part of the free world? Turkey? India? No one knows, and no one really cares, it’s not supposed to mean anything, it’s just a way of saying “our leader is super important and powerful, and also we’re better than you.” Same goes for “Zhongguo.” Anyway, eventually the Zhou lost power to a new dynasty called the Qin, which itself was quickly replaced by the Han dynasty, and so people started calling the political territory itself “Han” just like with the Zhou. The Han dynasty adopted the culture of the Zhou, and over time this culture of the elite trickled down to everyone else, and eventually everyone was speaking this language that didn’t have a name in this country that didn’t have a name. The Han dynasty also expanded the country to the south, spreading the language and culture there too. But after that, when the Han dynasty fell and the region broke up into a bunch of smaller states, something interesting happened. Even though they were politically divided they all still shared that common culture of the elites from the Zhou and Han periods. They looked back on the time when the Han dynasty ruled as a sort of golden age, and they saw themselves as the rightful descendants of that cultural legacy, so it seemed natural to call themselves “the people of Han,” even long after the Han state ceased to exist. They still call themselves “Han” to this day, although who exactly counts as Han has always been kind of vague. Like, originally it seems like the term just referred to the people of the original territory of the Zhou to the north, but eventually the term was expanded to include the people of the more mountainous south, sense they had also adopted Han culture after being conquered by the Han dynasty. So yeah, as the centuries went by the people of this region continued to refer to political entities by the families of their rulers or whatever region the rules came from, and they continued to refer themselves Han. However, the language slowly diverged into a whole bunch of different languages. Now, as you might have noticed, I’ve been talking about what in the west we generally call “China,” and yet, I’ve managed to do so without ever once actually using the word “China” or “Chinese.” That’s because no one in this region actually uses those words. The word “China” probably comes from a Persian word which probably comes from a Sanskrit word which might have come from the word “Qin,” the name of that super-short dynasty that came between the Zhou and Han dynasties. But not only isn’t “China” a word Chinese people use, but the entire idea of “China” might not have really existed in it’s modern form until Europeans introduced it. Like, in the US and the western world more generally we like to think in terms of nation states. Like, this country is France. French people live here, and they speak French. We have this instinct that political regimes, cultural identity and language should all line up with each other geographically to create what we might call a “nation.” But that way of thinking used to be pretty foreign to China until contact with Europeans really got serious in the 1800s, at which point the Han people started thinking much more in terms of this nation-state model. Well, at least, I think? Ok look, talking about a single person’s sense of identity and group membership can be really complicated. Talking about that but generalized for a large population is extremely tricky. Talking about that but over the course of two thousand years is simply beyond the scope of this video. But from where I’m sitting it looks a awful lot like the European nation-state concept at the very least substantially influence the way Chinese people think about themselves. Before they were Han people who lived in the Qing state which happened to include Zhonguo and who spoke a whole bunch of different languages descended from Middle Chinese, but with more and more contact with Europeans they started thinking in terms of “China” (Zhonguo) “Chinese people” (the Han) and the “Chinese Language,” for which they coined a whole new term: Han-yu, literally just “Han Language,” which doesn’t really make any sense, because the Han people haven’t spoken a single mutually-intelligible language in hundreds of years. As far as I can tell the phrase “Han-yu” basically refers to any of the languages the Han people speak, which is less of a language and more of a language family. Only one of these modern languages is officially used by the government of China, and that’s the one that evolved in the capital, Beijing. A century ago this language was called “guanhua” or “the language of officials,” but, somewhat hilariously, today the official name for it is “putonghua” or “common language.” Like, in the 1950s after the Communist party took over there were calls to use a different official language because guanhua was too bourgeois or whatever, but they couldn’t agree on what exactly to replace it with so they just slapped a new proletariat-y label on it and hoped no one would notice. In English we call it “Mandarin” because the Malay word for “government official” was “mantri” and the Chinese were calling it “the language of government officials” so we just started using that … by translating it into Malay first, I guess… I’m honestly not really sure what happened here. But yeah, it’s not like the idea of the nation state was perfect to begin with, but it’s an especially awkward fit on China. A big thing I didn’t mention was how there are currently two different countries claiming the title of “Zhonguo,” and there’s also some city states which are kind-of-sort-of part of the country but not really, but plenty of other people have made videos about that so I’m gonna stop here.