China's Japan

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According to this website of stars with the surname Chu 楚, Sara Chu was born in Japan, China:

Chǔ Jǐn (Sara Chu), shēngrì:  1974 nián 10 yuè 29 rì (xīngqí'èr), chūshēng dì: Zhōngguó Rìběn, xīngzuò: Tiānxiēzuò

楚谨(Sara Chu),生日:1974年10月29日(星期二),出生地: 中国日本,星座:天蝎座

Chu Jin (Sara Chu), birthday: October 29, 1974 (Tuesday), place of birth:  Japan, China, constellation: Scorpio

I've never heard of Sara Chu, and I've never heard of a place in China called "Japan", but it's possible that I missed both of them.

The use of the formulation "China's X", where X is a place name, to lay claim to territories, some of which are contested, is ubiquitous.  See the first item in the bibliography below.

A respondent to a question on Quora about whether Korea and Japan were ever part of China, Naoya Yamaguchi, answers as follows:

The third chief General, Ashikaga Yoshimitsu, of the Muromachi dynasty, had the status of the king of Japan (日本国王) in foreign affairs, the status of a Chinese regional official subordinate to the Chinese emperor and the status of the general in chief serving the Japanese emperor.

And then there is the famous "King of Na" (I wonder about this — see below for detailed discussion) gold seal:

The King of Na gold seal (Japanese: 漢委奴国王印) is a solid gold seal discovered in the year 1784 on Shikanoshima Island in Fukuoka Prefecture, Japan. The seal is designated as a National Treasure of Japan. The seal is believed to have been cast in China and bestowed by Emperor Guangwu of Han upon a diplomatic official (envoy) visiting from Japan in the year 57 AD. The five Chinese characters appearing on the seal identify it as the seal of the King of Na state of Wa (Japan), vassal state of the Han Dynasty. The seal is currently in the collection of the Fukuoka City Museum in Fukuoka, Japan.


The seal has been judged to be the one described in the Book of the Later Han, a Chinese chronicle of the history of the Eastern Han Dynasty. According to the chronicle, the Chinese Emperor Guangwu conferred the seal on a diplomatic official visiting from Japan.

Contemporary description of conferral

The following is the original Chinese text from the chronicle:


This passage can be translated into English as:

"In the 2nd year of the jianwu zhongyuan reign period [AD 57], the Na state of Wa sent an envoy with tribute. The envoy introduced himself as a high official. The state lies in the far south of Wa. [Emperor] Guangwu bestowed on him a seal with a tassel."

During the Han Dynasty, similar seals were bestowed on other regional sovereigns, in an attempt by the dynasty to bring these sovereigns into the Han ruling order.


I don't think I've ever seen an exacting interpretation of the five characters on the base of the seal, at least not one that is satisfying to me, though there surely must be detailed Sinological and Japanological exegeses.  Here's what Wikipedia has:

The five characters engraved on the seal are (in the order in which they are to be read):


The meanings of these characters (in the context of this seal) are: "Han" (referring to the Han Dynasty of China), "Wa" (an ancient name for Japan), "Na" (an ancient kingdom / state within Japan), "state / country", and "ruler". The last two characters, when combined, mean "king / sovereign". Altogether, the meaning of the seal inscription is: "(seal of) the King of the Na state of the Wa [vassal?] of the Han Dynasty".


That doesn't sound very precise or convincing.  Hoping to elicit a more rigorous reading from Japanese specialists, I will go over the five characters, one at a time, but focusing on the two that are most problematic. The pronunciations immediately following the characters and separated by a slash are respectively Modern Standard Mandarin and Modern Standard Japanese:

漢 Hàn / Kan    name of Chinese dynasty (202 BC–220 AD)

委 wěi / i    commission; appoint; entrust; depute   

Judging from the record in the Book of the Later Han quoted above and in other sources, this would appear to be equivalent to:

倭 Wō / Wa, Yamato    name for early Japan

But the Book of the Later Han dates to the 5th century AD, whereas the gold seal is from the year 57 AD, so we need to take seriously the possibility that 委 in the engraving on the seal has its primary meaning, especially since it constitutes hard, material evidence.

奴 nú / nu    has a number of different pronunciations and meanings in later stages of Japanese, but the early meanings of the Sinitic morpheme that would be relevant for the time of the seal are "servant; slave").  Although most modern sources seem to be taking 奴國 as the name of a country, hence "Na Kingdom, aside from this seal, what other 1st or 2nd century AD source provides evidence for the existence of a "Na kingdom" in Japan?  In the Records of the Wei (Wèi zhì 魏志), ca. 297 AD, there are references to a Núguó 奴國 (lit. "slave country"), J. Nakoku 奴国, and even a Gǒunúguó 狗奴國 (lit. "dog slave country"), Japanese Kunakoku, in the Japanese archipelago.


Here are relevant early pronunciations:  Old Japanese dwo; Late Han na; Early Middle Sinitic nuo; Late Middle Sinitic ndɔ; Go-on nu; Kan-on do; Nom no, nó; Sino-Vietnamese ; Sino-Korean now

From John R. Bentley, ABC Dictionary of Ancient Japanese Phonograms (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2016), p. 53.  See also Victor H. Mair, ABC Dictionary of Sino-Japanese Readings (Honolulu:  University of Hawaii Press, 2016), p. 108.

國 guó / koku, kuni    country; kingdom

王 wáng / ō    prince; king

Historical context of the "King of Na" gold seal:

The first mention of the Japanese archipelago was in the Chinese historic text Book of Later Han, in the year 57, in which it was noted that the Emperor of the Han dynasty gave a golden seal to Wa (Japan). The King of Na gold seal was discovered in northern Kyūshū in the eighteenth century. From then on Japan was repeatedly recorded in Chinese historical texts, at first sporadically, but eventually continuously as Japan matured into a notable power in the region.

There is a Chinese tradition that the first Chinese Emperor, Qin Shi Huang, sent several hundred people to Japan to search for medicines of immortality. During the third century, Chinese travelers reported that inhabitants of Japan claimed ancestry from Wu Taibo, a king of the Wu state (located in modern Jiangsu and Zhejiang) during the Warring States era. They recorded examples of Wu traditions including ritual teeth-pulling, tattooing and carrying babies on backs. Other records at the time show that Japan already had the same customs recognized today. These include clapping during prayers, eating from wooden trays and eating raw fish (also a traditional custom of Jiangsu and Zhejiang before pollution made this impractical). Kofun era traditions appear in the records as the ancient Japanese built earthen mound tombs.

The first Japanese personage mentioned by the Wei Zhi (Records of Wei) is Himiko, the female shaman leader of a country with hundreds of states called Yamataikoku. Modern historical linguists believe Yamatai was actually pronounced Yamato.


China's Japan or Japan, China — even less likely than for Vietnam to become part of China, despite the Central Kingdom trying for millennia to make that a reality.


Selected readings


[Thanks to Tom Davidson]


  1. DaveK said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    Could this be some abbreviated way of saying she was born in Japan of Chinese parents or vice versa? Or that she was born in one country but raised in another?

  2. jin defang said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:06 am

    so the ruler of Na, a state which hasn't existed for more than a millennium, was a vassal of the Han, also long gone. Which proves….what?

  3. Joshua Fogel said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:18 am

    I published a book several years ago on the "gold seal" and the centuries of debate about it: Japanese Historiography and the Gold Seal of 57 C.E.: Relic, Text, Object, Fake (Brill, 2013). And, the debate about its authenticity continues right down to the present day.

  4. Alexander Vovin said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 12:00 pm

    Dear Victor,

    A couple of corrections.
    First, the most relevant Old Japanese ongana (based on Sino Japanese) reading of 奴 is /no/, which normally is raised to /nu/ in the Nara dialect of the 8th c. Presumably /do/ exists (I cannot check it in the place I am now), but it must be Kan-on vs. Go-on based /no/ ~ /nu/, but off the top of my head it is never used in the mainstream of OJ texts but only in the Nihonshoki.
    The Sino-Korean reading /now/ does not exist. Only /noW/ would be possible, but it is aberrant, and I trust that Old Korean is simply /no/.
    Na for 奴 is certainly a Chinese Han period reading. It does not occur in OJ texts.

  5. Twill said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 12:09 pm

    According to the same site, Chu is also a guinea pig, so I would take it with more that a grain of salt. Being as that website appears to be spam (probably best not to link to it), I looked at possible sources for that snippet, and my best guess at a glance is that it took her baidu baike page (or another source, they all seem to have basically the same information) and conflated the 国籍 section with the 出生地 one. This is probably algorithmic nonsense, not the conscious work of a fringe jingoist.

  6. John Swindle said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 2:18 pm

    My first thought was that maybe she was born in Chugoku and they got it the wrong way around.

  7. Aelfric said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 3:34 pm

    I am FAR from an expert in this field, but I am consistently bemused by the suspicion that many such gifts were misinterpreted–i.e., the Han in effect saying "by accepting this gift you accept that you are our vassal," while the Wa might well have understood "you are giving us this gift because we are so great!" But with that, back to Anglo-Saxon England where I belong….

  8. Christian Horn said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 6:16 pm

    In Japanese, the area in the middle of Japan is called 中国, just like China. I think just from context one can guess whether "middle of Japan" or "China" is meant.
    So me reading 出生地: 中国日本 interprets this as "a person from the middle of Japan".

  9. B.Ma said,

    September 13, 2021 @ 11:25 pm

    I agree with Twill. Who/whatever generated that page has just inserted 中国 in front of all the birthplaces. Birthplaces in China are just stated as the province and the city.**

    If Japan's Chuugoku was intended, it would say 日本中国 (or maybe 中国日本中国).

    Looking at the first entry, 楚宣 who is from Taiwan, I wonder if the insertion of 中国 was intended to assert that 中国 is the highest level geographical area and prevent Taiwan from being listed as a highest level geographical area.

    **Americans are also guilty of this in English, as American states are often listed as the highest level geographic area on par with other countries. If a well-meaning creator of a similar webpage decided to append USA to all birthplaces, Sara Chu might end up being described as being born in Japan, USA.

  10. Michael Watts said,

    September 15, 2021 @ 3:52 am

    I am consistently bemused by the suspicion that many such gifts were misinterpreted–i.e., the Han in effect saying "by accepting this gift you accept that you are our vassal," while the Wa might well have understood "you are giving us this gift because we are so great!"

    It is noted in Brotherhood of Kings: How International Relations Shaped the Ancient Near East that the very common trade of a Mesopotamian city-king's daughter to the pharaoh of Egypt in exchange for a big pile of gold had local publicity benefits on both ends: to the Mesopotamians, the city-king was placed in a superior position to Egypt by becoming the pharaoh's father-in-law, and to the Egyptians, the pharaoh demonstrated his power by receiving a bride as tribute.

    It's not necessary to postulate that the trade was misunderstood by either involved party — it only had to look good to the local nobility. It is reasonably safe to assume that the kings understood they could not relate to Egypt in the same way they might relate to another city-state whose king had married a daughter of theirs, and the pharaohs understood that the kings sending them brides would be mortally offended to have those brides characterized as "tribute". But the larger point was how the ruler could represent himself to third parties, not how he could represent himself to the other end of the trade.

  11. Twill said,

    September 16, 2021 @ 12:43 am

    @Christian Horn The main problem with interpreting it as Chuukoku, Japan is that placenames are ubiquitously read the other way around in both countries. It's a bit like reading "Georgia, USA" and positing that it might refer to a place called Usa in the Caucasus. As I mentioned, it's a fairly moot point when we're talking about a bot-generated webpage that furnished a picture of a South American rodent for a portrait of the person in question.

    @Aelfric Not even necessarily "mis"interpreted: China operated under the principle that the rest of the world were their vassals and so the gifts given to envoys were of course tribute, even if they only really amounted to a courtesy gift. As long as neither party pressed the point, these pretensions could pass without comment. Japan was one place that consistently denied being a vassal to China, though there was a brief period where it was accepted, and through the shogunate China's claims could rest undisturbed (the restoration saw a diplomatic incident when by political necessity the Japanese Emperor's claims were once again put in tension with China's). Other places like Korea were less hostile to tributary status, but that doesn't mean that this described their actual relations much of the time in point of fact. These diplomatic games could be safely dismissed as polite fiction if they weren't used in the modern day to support sweeping geopolitical claims.

  12. Josh R. said,

    September 19, 2021 @ 7:46 pm

    I'll just point out that Japanese 中国 "Chuugoku" is the designation of a region (specifically, the western part of Honshu island, containing the prefectures of Okayama, Hiroshima, Yamaguchi, Tottori, and Shimane), and highly unlikely to be used in personal profiles. It would be equivalent to "Birthplace: West Coast, USA."

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