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The Grand Chessboard by Zbigniew Brzezinski (1)

Reading ‘The Grand Chessboard’ (1997) by Zbigniew Brzezinski and come across this passage on p. 9:

The Chinese, for whom the word “Russia” means “the hungry land,” were even more openly contemptuous.

I am really surprised to see this because the name of Russia is just translated phonetically into Chinese. Each syllable is mapped into a Chinese character which carries a similar sound. There is no special meaning in the final compound words.

But the history of this ‘translation by phonetic’ business does reflect an interesting evolution of the Chinese’s view of the outside world.

Basically, as is the case in most other languages, you can segregate chinese characters into three categories in term of connotations: positive, neutral and derogative.

Up to the end of Qing dynasty, since Han people consider their culture as the most advanced in the entire universe, any race or country outside of the sino-culture sphere is seen as barbaric. The Chinese translators will usually use the set of derogative character to son the phonetic translation of these alien names. The resultant combination usually do not make any sense but you can infer, by the choice of individual characters, it is a name of a barbarian.

More classy combination of characters are usually reserved for names of religious figures of significance.

This practice basically ceased when China became a republic in 1911, I suppose. Nowadays usually only characters of positive or neutral nature will be used in phonetic translation. In rare case literal translation is used. A good recent example is Montenegro. It is literally translated as ‘Black Mountain Republic’ in Chinese.