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The inscription of “He Zun” 何尊 and the “Zicai” 梓材 in Shangshu 尚書, both of which record events during the early Western Zhou dynasty, are historical texts containing the earliest appearance of the term zhongguo 中國. The zhongguo in those texts was a concept which was extremely rich in meaning. It does not refer specifically to the Luoyang 洛陽 region, which was then considered the heart of the Chinese kingdom, but rather refers to the capital in a geographical sense as well as the state in a political sense. When zhongguo first appeared in writing, it did not refer to China and Chinese culture yet. It was neither a racial concept which referred specifically to the Chinese race, nor a cultural concept which referred to Chinese culture. When zhongguo first appeared in writing during the early Zhou dynasty, it was a written record of the concept of zhongguo which was already in wide circulation in society at that time. In fact, the concept of zhongguo probably originated even before the early Western Zhou dynasty. Noting the origins of concepts such as zhong and dizhong 地中 (the center of the land), some archaeologists have concluded that zhongguo first appeared during the Taosi 陶寺 period, the Miaodigou 廟底溝 period, or the Erlitou 二里頭 period. Studying these archaeological findings in conjunction with recounts regarding zhongguo in historical texts, it is probably historically accurate to date the earliest appearance of the concept of zhongguo to the founding of the Xia dynasty.

Open Access
In: Journal of Chinese Humanities