Da Qin.

Over at Wordorigins.org, OP Tipping quotes Silk Road Seattle’s page “The Kingdom of Da Qin 大秦 (the Roman Empire)“:

Da Qin 大秦 [Ta Ch’in] = Rome or Roman territory, depending on the context. The use of such a name (literally, ‘Great Qin’ = Great China) for a foreign state probably reflects the common process of mythologizing distant and unfamiliar cultures. Pulleyblank (1999), p. 77 notes that it “…is clearly not a transcription of a foreign word” and that the “…earliest datable occurrence seems to be with reference to Gān Ying’s mission of 97 C.E.”

and asks, “Why would China call Rome ‘the Great China’?” I thought that was an excellent question, and since Hatters did such a good job with Dashi (what the Chinese called the Arabs in the 8th century), I thought I’d bring it here. Anybody know anything?


  1. History of the Later Han (後漢書) explains that

    (The people of this country are honest. They resemble the Chinese, and that is why the country is called Da Qin.)

  2. Excellent, thanks much!

  3. Greg Pandatshang says

    If this term is first attested ca. 100 CE, then the Qin dynasty had been gone for hundreds of years at that time. Was秦 qín in use with the general meaning of “China” during the Eastern Han? I’m not familiar with such a usage, but I wouldn’t really expect myself to be.

    Regardless, “Great Qin” as a name for Rome remains completely baffling to me. The explanation in the後漢書is unconvincing to say the least.

    Qin was originally a westerly frontier state. Could qín have developed a more general meaning of “western peripheral areas”, which was then extended to Rome in the far west? Or could there perhaps have been some kind of legend connecting the ancestors of the Romans and the Qin?

    Nothing about秦 qín that I know of implies that a transcription of a loan word, but in the absence of another hypothesis, perhaps a transcription could be reconsidered. Might there be some largely or completely forgotten people living somewhere west of China whose name could be transcribed 秦 (I believe that would be originally a voiced initial) and could have been extended metonymically to Rome?

  4. ABC Etymological Dictionary of Old Chinese says that pronunciation of 秦 could have been with final -r, not -n, citing ancient Greek ‘serikon’ (Chinese) which, in turn, is a Greek attempt to pronounce ‘Qin’.

    So, Daqin = Great Ser.

    Ser, I suppose, refers to Syria, the only Roman province Chinese sources would have had contact.

  5. Baxter and Sagart reconstruct 大秦 for Middle Chinese as *daH dzin. Doesn’t sound much like any placenames that come to mind, but perhaps it would make more sense if we spoke Sogdian…

  6. 大秦 is also used for Syriac Christianity. Nestorianism is called 景教.

  7. Baxter and Sagart (2014) reconstruct 秦 for Old Chinese as *[dz]i[n], where the square brackets mean that we are uncertain about the identity of the element. So the initial would have been *dz- or some other element that had the same reflex in Middle Chinese as *dz-, and the coda would have been *-n or some other element with the same reflex. I don’t know what other Old Chinese initials are possible for *dz-, but I think the usual reflex of Old Chinese *-r in Middle Chinese would have been *-n, so it is indeed possible that 秦 could have had a final *-r. Meanwhile, Zhengzhang (2003) reconstructs 秦 for Old Chinese as *zin.

    The explanation in the Book of the Later Han 後漢書 that the name 大秦 Da Qin is due to the resemblance of the people to the Chinese comes from the reports of the same Gan Ying 甘英 who provides the earliest datable occurrence of the name according to Pulleyblank; he was sent on a mission to Rome in 97 AD, though he never reached it. The same account says that another name for Da Qin was 犂鞬 Lijian, which in Baxter’s transcription for Middle Chinese would be *lijkjwon. 黎軒 Lixuan (Baxter’s MC *lejxjwon) also appears in Records of the Grand Historian 史記. It has been suggested that these refer to Rekem, the Semitic name for Petra, according to the wonderful resource I just discovered: Places and Peoples in Central Asia and in the Graeco-Roman Near East by Samuel N.C. Lieu.

    The Korean scholar Jeong Suil 정수일 鄭守一 (who was a North Korean operative who posed as a Lebanese Arab to enter South Korea and achieved fame as a historian before his identity was revealed, served time in prison, and now has become a South Korean citizen) writes in his Dictionary of the Silk Road 실크로드 사전 that there are two main theories on the origin of the name Da Qin. The first is the one already mentioned, that it is due to the resemblance to the Chinese. Though this appears in the Book of Later Han already mentioned as well as the Book of Wei 魏書, Jeong finds this explanation unconvincing. The second theory is that 大 da “big/great” shares its meaning with 泰 tai, which also has a meaning of “extreme” or “pole”, so that the West Sea 西海 xihai is also called 泰海 taihai. Since this means that 泰 tai is associated with the West, 大秦 Da Qin means “West of China”, or the “Extreme West”. Jeong doesn’t give a source for this theory, and I can’t verify his claims about 泰 tai, but it’s interesting to consider.

    Despite the popular theory that it is the origin of the name China, I am not familiar with 秦 Qin being used to mean China as a whole after the fall of the short-lived Qin dynasty in China itself. So my thought was the same as Greg Pandatshang’s, that it could have meant the western peripheral areas where the state of Qin originally arose, so that 大秦 Da Qin could have connoted the far west.

  8. Greg Pandatshang says

    SFReader, what does Schuessler have for OC 秦?

    Baxter and Sagart 大 as *lˤats (obviously a loanword from the modern American English “lots”!). The ˤ indicates that it’s a type A syllable, conjectured to have emphatic phonation. So, OC *lˤats-[dz]i[n] > MC *da-dzin ~ *daj-dzin (I’ve stripped tone marks from the MC; alsto note this j is a yod, as in IPA). Baxter and Sagart are definitely proponents of final /n/ and /r/ merging as /n/, so *dzir is definitely a possibility for OC. Not sure what the options subsumed under [dz] are.

    We don’t know exactly when 大秦 in the sense of “Rome” was coined, but if it was circa the Eastern Han, then that would be somewhere between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese. Not sure what sound changes happened exactly when, but I seem to recall reading that final /r/ > /n/ was early … and possibly the same about /lˤ/ > /d/, I’m not sure. So, we could be looking for roughly /lad͡zːir/ or /dad͡zin/ or other options, including unknown possibilities for the medial consonant. And the first syllable might be semantic rather than a transcription so equally as well perhaps simply /d͡zir/ or /d͡zin/, etc.

    I think I’ve seen 秦 reconstructed before with an initial *z or *ʒ, later fortited to an affricate, as per Zhengzhang via Jongseong Park. Not sure if those are possibilities in Baxter and Sagart’s system or not. That would get us closer to “Syr[ia]”, but the voicing remains inexplicable.

  9. Schuessler says

    qin 秦 (dzjen) LH dzin, OCM *dzin – [T] ONW dzin
    The western state of Qin and the dynasty. Qin is often thought to be the source of ancient European words for ‘China’: Lat. ‘Sina’ etc., modern Western languages ‘China’. Also the word for ‘silk’ may ultimately be derived from this name: Gr. serikon, i.e. ‘the Chinese one, (the stuff) from China’. These ancient loans suggest that the original final was *-r, not *-n (Pulleyblank 1962: 229-230).

  10. For what it’s worth, W.E. Soothill in his _A Dictionary of Chinese Buddhist Terms_ 漢英佛學大辭典 on page 335 glosses 大秦 as “Syria, the Eastern Roman Empire.”

  11. Trond Engen says

    I suspect the Chinese ambassadors never went to Rome but spent the days on the Da Zyr coast in Gallia Narbonensis.

  12. David Eddyshaw says

    @Trond Engen.

    Ah, of course. Obvious now you’ve pointed it out.
    And who shall blame them?

  13. Trond Engen says

    Way better than working for Da Man.

  14. I hadn’t done the due diligence of reading the full source—Silk Road Seattle’s page “The Kingdom of Da Qin 大秦 (the Roman Empire)“—in its entirety before I commented earlier.

    The second note on the page is indeed about “Lijian 犂鞬 [Li-chien – sometimes written Li-kan]”. It lists some proposed origins of this name, including Rekem (Petra) that I mentioned in my earlier comment but also Alexandria or Alexander, the Seleucid Empire (Seleukidai), and the ancient state of Hyrcania (Old Persian Wrkāna) at the southeastern corner of the Caspian Sea.

    The third note is about “Haixi 海西 [Hai-hsi] = Egypt”. The identification with Egypt seems to be secure, and the name transparently means “west of the sea (sea-west)”. So this is at least one example of a name that is not a transcription from a different language. The first note on Da Qin 大秦 quotes Pulleyblank (1999) as saying that Da Qin “…is clearly not a transcription of a foreign word”, and Haixi for Egypt is at least one such example that is named for its meaning rather than transcribed.

  15. Greg Pandatshang says

    Baxter and Sagart reconstruct海西 as *m̥ˤəʔ and *snˤər with the m̥ (voiceless bilabial nasal) becoming /x/ and the nˤ being elided fairly early on. I wonder if *m̥ˤəʔsnˤər could be related to the ~misr name of Egypt. Just spitballing here.

  16. Wow, I must admit I never even considered that 海西 Haixi for Egypt could have been chosen for any reason other than the meaning in Chinese. It is glossed as “west of the sea” in all interpretations I’ve seen, with theories about whether the sea represents the Mediterranean or the Persian Gulf. But the link with the Semitic name for Egypt is definitely an intriguing possibility.

    Zhengzhang reconstructs 海 as *hmlɯːʔ and 西 as *sɯːl according to Wiktionary. Comparing this with Baxter and Sagart’s *m̥ˤəʔ and *snˤər shows how much variation there can be in reconstructing Old Chinese, but does indicate that there was probably a bilabial nasal initial for 海 whose devoicing ultimately led to replacement by /x~h/ in all Middle Chinese reconstructions.

    Standard Arabic Miṣr is cognate with other Semitic names for Egypt, attested as the Akkadian Miṣri in the Amarna Tablets at least from the 14th century BC; other Akkadian variants include Miṣru, Miṣir, and Muṣur. So the name certainly was around and was very old by the time of the presumed contacts.

    In rime dictionaries for Middle Chinese, 海 has the 曉 initial, *x. The rime dictionary 切韻 Qieyun of 601 AD set down what were already old-fashioned pronunciations for literary recitation, so the bilabial nasal pronunciation was probably lost even in Early Middle Chinese. It is not preserved in any Sino-Xenic readings of 海.

    But at the time of Gan Ying’s (unfinished) mission to Rome 97 AD, Classical Chinese would have been spoken. Classical Chinese falls somewhere between Old Chinese and Middle Chinese, so the hypothesized bilabial nasal pronunciation might still have survived for 海. Aramaic, which had Meṣrēn for Egypt with the root Meṣr, would have been widely spoken in the Near East at that time. I don’t know if there is anything to this, but it’s certainly fun to speculate.

  17. It certainly is — what an intriguing idea!

  18. David Marjanović says

    I wonder if *m̥ˤəʔsnˤər could be related to the ~misr name of Egypt. Just spitballing here.

    In particular, the -ʔsnˤ- part just might be an attempt to render , which must have been [tsˤ] at some point in some Semitic languages.

  19. You know, I was surprised when I learned that Egypt and Copt aren’t derived from kmt – I had always imagined that they were, based on the places of articulation, but instead they come from ḥwt-k3-ptḥ ‘Memphis’.

  20. Savalonôs says

    Wiktionary ( https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/大秦 ) points out that Zhang Binglin back in 1919 proposed that 大秦 could derive from Latin, Latium, or some related word. The former makes perfect sense with Baxter and Sagart’s reconstructed *lats-dzin. Naturally would require some kind of palatal affrication in the source speaker, which could be either a Vulgar Latin accent or some intermediary language.


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