While Europe was largely unknown territory full
of barbarian tribes, and the only civilisations were Mediterranean,
China was steadily building a unified empire.
It was also an empire with a wide variety of
dialects and languages that, even today, show great variance. How
these people referred to their new state at this time is unknown -
probably they didn't at all yet - but the dynasty which forcibly
reunited them after decades of warfare became known to outsiders.
It seems to have been the name of this dynasty that
was used to refer to the state itself - then and now. The dynasty
was the Qin, and the name stuck as 'China'. (The Chinese themselves
have a different name for their country, but that's another
Differences in pronunciation
That name, however, is pronounced in some
languages with a 'k', as in Hungarian (Kína), Finnish (Kiina),
Croatian (Kina), or Romanian (China). In others, it uses a 'ch'
sound - as in English 'cheese' - such as with English and Spanish
(China), or Italian (Cina).
German is a little strange in this regard, pronouncing
it as 'keena', 'heena', 'sheena', or 'cheena'.
So far there's nothing particularly unusual in all
of this, since one of the most common sound changes is one that is
referred to as palatalisation before the front vowels, such as
'k' > 'ch'.
It could be supposed that some languages
borrowed it from a language that conserved the velar 'k' sound
before 'i', while in others it comes from another language that
shifted it to 'ch'. But the truth is that something else happened
First of all, the modern forms of the name are
attested only from the sixteenth century and, as far as is known,
there was no language prior to this in which 'China' was spelled with
a 'k'. For example, in Old Greek it is Σῖναι,
'seenay', while the Late Latin form is Sīnæ, 'seenay', the source
of the prefix sino- in words such as Sinology, the study of the history,
language, and culture of China.
In 221 BC the Qin controlled the entire former imperial
territories of the north, plus the recently-incorporated Shu
and Ba, but expansion beckoned to the north (a little, largely
constrained by the construction of the Great Wall - shown here
as a general border rather than specifying all of its different
construction phases and locations) and to the south, where several
campaigns between 221-209 BC greatly increased the empire (click
or tap on map to view full sized)