The Romans knew it as Serica, Marco Polo as Cathay. The Chinese themselves called their country the Middle Country, or the Flowery Land. The English name 'China' is probably derived from the name of the empire established by the First Emperor (Qin Shi Huangdi) in 221 BC. It was called Qin (pronounced 'chin').
Qin Shi Huangdi was the first to create a unified empire out of the many feudal states which had preceded it. Over the centuries that followed, both the territorial claims and the actual authority of the Chinese rulers expanded and shrank many times. In the Han period (206 BCE - 220 CE), military colonies stretched out beyond the Great Wall across Central Asia , into northern Korea , and down into Annam , making China comparable in extent with the Roman empire that dominated the western hemisphere at the same time.
At other times, like the Ming dynasty (1368-1644), it was largely contained within the Wall. It was the foreign rulers of the Qing dynasty (1644-1911) who brought the territories recognised today as Manchuria and Chinese Turkestan permanently under their control. Together with Tibet and other lands (including Korea) over which they claimed suzerainty they formed an empire nearly as big as the whole of the North American continent (map 2).
In the 19th century, however, the same Manchu rulers were responsible for surrendering Hong Kong and Taiwan to foreign Powers. This was also the time when Chinese migrant workers began to go abroad, especially to North America, swelling the numbers of Overseas Chinese . Today, no matter where they live in the world and whatever their political leanings, all Chinese people retain a strong sense of connection with their ethnic roots. The term 'Greater China' is sometimes used to describe the wider connections that link the People's Republic, the Republic of China (Taiwan), and Chinese communities elsewhere in the world.
The concept of China as a geo-political entity was ill-defined. The authority claimed by the emperor might be widely acknowledged, even by the rulers of neighbouring states which sent tribute, but it was often implemented imperfectly. This was partly because the empire was so enormous and communication was always slow and inadequate, even for example between the capital and parts of China south of the Yangzi River. As recently as the 20th century, regional leaders sometimes went their own way and ruled as virtual 'kings' over their own territories, without ever questioning the notion that they belonged to 'China' as a whole.
What helped to preserve the concept of one China, surmounting ethnic differences and periods of political disunion and outlasting invasion by alien armies and religions, was pride in its culture, especially its great traditions of the brush, namely painting and calligraphy. The shared written script, comprehensible to speakers of mutually unintelligible dialects in different parts of the country, helped to bind the empire together and promoted calligraphy into a respected art form. It was also the willing adoption of the Chinese script by scholars in the neighbouring countries of Korea, Japan and Vietnam that helped to define the region within East and Southeast Asia that is nowadays referred to as the Chinese culture zone, for their study of the important early Chinese texts of Confucianism spread Chinese concepts of culture and civilisation across these developing states from the time of the Han dynasty onwards.Prof. K Pratt | Jul 2002