There's a joke going around in mainland China about the best way to transcribe the name of the country in Chinese characters. Each line is redolent of some social issue:
the bachelor reads it as qīnǎ 妻哪 = where is my wife? (N.B.: the Chinese term for "bachelor" here is guānggùn 光棍, which may also in some contexts be rendered as "ruffian" and more literally as "bare stick / club"; it refers to unmarried young men who have, already for centuries, been responsible for a disproportionate amount of violence in society, including especially in recent years the knifing of small children at schools; one of the reasons for the hostility demonstrated by guānggùn in Chinese society is the inordinate gender imbalance caused by female infanticide and now in utero sex determination which leads to higher rates of abortion for female fetuses — there simply aren't enough women to go around)
the playboy reads it as qiènǎ 妾哪 = where is my mistress?
the lover reads it as qīnnǎ 亲哪 = where is my darling?
the poor person reads it as qiánnǎ 钱哪 = where is my money?
the doctor reads it as qiènǎ 切哪 = where to cut?
the official reads it as quánnǎ 权哪 = where is my power?
the real estate developer reads it as quānnǎ 圈哪 = where can I encircle?
the dispossessed reads it as qiānnǎ 迁哪 = where should I move to?
the government reads it as chāinǎ 拆哪 = where should we demolish?
The government reading is said to be both the most apt in terms of meaning and most accurate in terms of sound. When foreign visitors come to China, everywhere they turn they see the character 拆 painted on buildings, including the homes of many people who are still living in them. Puzzled, they ask their translator what this ubiquitous sign means. Whereupon the translator replies, "That's the name of our country. From ancient times, the name of our country has been CHINA chāi[nǎ] 拆[哪] ("demolish; tear down") — demolition is absolutely essential."
The joke may be funny, but the reality behind it is not. Briefly to address only the problem of chāi ("demolish; tear down"), forced demolition without compensation or with inadequate compensation has probably led to more violence in China during recent years than any other single cause. Riots, suicides, bombings — all sorts of unpleasant results can occur when people see their houses being torn down around them, often in the middle of the night and with goon squads accompanying the bulldozers and backhoes.
A final note is that nǎ 哪 ("what; which"), which forms the second syllable of all these transcriptions, is an interrogative particle that carries no overt semantic content. The little square (radical 30 [signifying "mouth"] in the traditional Kangxi system) at the left side of the character indicates that the sound it conveys is of more importance than any meaning it may be said to possess. I mention this small grammatical point because it will come up again in my next post.
[A tip of the hat to Sanping Chen and thanks to Gianni Wan]