Huaxia: pre-Han cognomen of the Middle Kingdom

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Iskandar Ding and the Scythians are well known on Language Log.  Now they come together in this reference to Christopher Beckwith's The Scythian Empire:

[click on the illustration to go to the X post and then click again to embiggen the page so that it is easy to read]

These are audacious claims that only Chris Beckwith would dare to make.

"Huáxià 華夏", Wiktionary

Attested in the Zuo Zhuan:

That Chu lost the allegiance of the flourishing and grand ("華夏") central states was the doing of the lord of Xi.


A line in the Zuo Zhuan features the words (OC *ɡraːʔ) and (OC *ɡʷraː) used in a parallel structure.

The borderers may not plot against the grand ("夏") domains; the aliens should not sow chaos among the flourishing ("華") peoples.

"Huaxia", Wikipedia

Huaxia is a historical concept representing the Chinese nation, and came from the self-awareness of a common cultural ancestry by the various confederations of pre-Qin ethnic ancestors of Han people.

The earliest extant authentic attestation of the Huaxia concept is in the Zuo Zhuan, a historical narrative and commentary authored before 300 BCE. In Zuo zhuan, Huaxia refers to the central states (中國 zhōngguó) in the Yellow River valley, dwelt by the Huaxia people, ethnically equivalent to Han Chinese in pre-imperial discourses.

According to the Confucian Kong Yingda, xià ( 'grand') signified the 'greatness' () in the ceremonial etiquettes of the central states, while huá ( 'flower', 'blossom') was used in reference to the beauty () in the hanfu clothing that the denizens from those states wore.

Thus have Confucianist Chinese traditionally believed for millennia.  Their interpretation of Huáxià 華夏 is completely at odds with Beckwith's.  If the traditional Confucianists are right, Beckwith is wrong; if Beckwith is right, the Confucianists are wrong.  So it is with many key terms in the history of Chinese civilization, e.g., Mair and the monosyllabistic nativist-nationalist traditionalists with regard to the name Dūnhuáng 敦煌.


Selected readings

[Thanks to Geoff Wade]


  1. Pamela said,

    July 3, 2024 @ 8:35 pm

    Wow. The Kong Yingda thing is particularly unbelievable. Clearly the kind of thing people make up when they don't know. I have always assumed that at some remotely early point (pre-writing) hua and xia were the same name. No? I hadn't read the Beckwith hypothesis. Let me guess. The next thing is: Aryan=Huaxia. That's not me! I'm just thinking along here.

  2. Chris Button said,

    July 4, 2024 @ 1:59 am

    @ Pamela

    Pulleyblank proposed a connection between hua and xia. The alternation between Old Chinese uvular and velar onsets (here uvular ʁ- and velar g-, which Zhengzhang treats as ɡʷ- and g-) is not unheard of.

  3. Endymion Wilkinson said,

    July 4, 2024 @ 7:28 pm

    Chinese History: A New Manual, 6th edition, 2022. Introduction, Section A.2.2:

    “Nearly all the names of dynasties (guohao 國號) and polities up to and including the Han 漢 were taken from place names ,,, An alternative tradition (that dates from the Han) claims that the names of the early dynasties were not derived from toponyms. Instead, it assigns a fine or auspicious meaning to them. For example, Tang 唐 = majesty, Xia 夏 = great, Yin 殷 = to flourish, Zhou 周 = to attain, Han 漢 = Milky Way (Tianhe 天河, Tianhan 天漢), and Xin 新 = new. For a discussion of these auspicious readings (in the context of Wang Mang’s use of Xin 新), see Yang (1956 & 1957; Liao Boyuan 2002).

    Section 12.3.1
    The people of the Zhou used the autonym Xia 夏 or Zhuxia 諸夏 to distinguish themselves from the Rong 戎 and Di 狄 …They were also known as the Hua 華, which was probably originally the name of an earlier tribe or possibly an alternative for Xia 夏, but was later glossed as meaning “cultivated” as in Huaxia 華夏. Although the philological basis for this gloss is weak, the point is that is how the ancient Chinese wished to differentiate themselves from their Others, including the southern barbarians, for whom their exonym was Man 蠻 …” and so on.

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