The writing to refer to the "United States of America" has changed several times throughout Chinese history. In Mandarin Chinese, the full name of the "United States of America" is "Mei Li Jian He Zhong Guo" "Mei Li Jian" ("美利坚") is the transliteration of the syllables "Ame-ri-ca," while "He Zhong Guo" (合众国) is the Chinese translation of the phrase "United States." Yet, the common term used to refer to the United States is its abbreviated form: "美"（"Mei"）+ "国"（"Guo"). Literally speaking, "美" ("Mei") signifies "beautiful," while "国" ("Guo") means "country" or "State." Hence, 美国 ("Mei Guo") can be coincidentally understood as "beautiful country," or as "beautiful state." It is worth noting that the characters forming the full word of "America," "Mei Li Jian" ("美利坚), literally mean "beautiful" (美), "profit" (利) and "endurance "(坚).
The United States As The Country "To Be Eaten With The Mouth"
According to Chinese official documents, during the Reign of Emperor Qianlong (1735-1796), the Chinese transliteration of "Ame-ri-ca" was "" which is pronounced in Mandarin "Mi Li Jian."
In fact, soon after its founding, the United States of America began trading around the world. Americans first came to Guangzhou in 1784, the only city in China where international trade was allowed at that time. As the United States was a new country, the English interpreters in Guangzhou adapted the English pronunciation of the name "United States of America" to their familiar Cantonese and translated it into "" ("Mi Li Jian").
It is worth noting that the character "咪" was used to refer to the United States. This character, which includes the "radical mouth" character "口" ("mouth") and the character 米 ("Mi," meaning "rice"), and is in line with the common writing method of transliteration with contempt for foreign country names at that time, that is, the "radical mouth" character "口" ("mouth") is usually added to indicate that this is a transliteration. At the same time, it signifies "eating the other party with the mouth." The Qing Dynasty considered itself the central Kingdom (In Chinese, China is called "中国" ("Zhong Guo"), meaning the "Central Country" and referring to the idea that China stands at the center of the civilized world) and did not have a good opinion of Western countries, which were perceived as barbarians. For this reason, under the Qing Dynasty, the character "咪" to define America, implied that it was a country "to be eaten with the mouth."
The Unites States As The "Rice Country"
Later, as the Qing Dynasty failed to succeed in the wars against the Western powers, it started to develop more respect for the West. At the same time, the commercial exchanges with the United States started to increase in Guangzhou. Hence, in the Reign of Emperor Daoguang of the Qing Dynasty (1820-1850), the name of the United States changed from "" ("Mi Li Jian") to a more standardized "米利坚"("Mi Li Jian"). By comparing "" with "米利坚," one can see that the "radical mouth" character "口" ("mouth") was removed from all the three characters, giving to the word a more concise look and a better meaning. Hence, the United States turned from being the country "to be eaten with the mouth" ("咪") to being simply "the rice" ("米") country (the character "咪" once left alone without the "radical mouth" "口" means simply "rice/米"). It is worth noting that the pronunciation of "" and "米利坚" is basically the same ("Mi Li Jian").
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The Unites States As The "Beautiful Country"
In the second half of the 19th century, the Qing Dynasty adopted a new translation to refer to America. The words "亚美理驾" (which in Mandarin are pronounced: "Ya Mei Li Jia," and are a transliteration of "Ame-ri-ca") and "合众国"（which in Mandarin are pronounced: "He Zhong Guo," and are a translation of the phrase "United States") replaced the previous translations. For the first time, the word "美" ("Mei," beautiful, which appears in "亚美理驾/Ya Mei Li Jia") gradually substituted the character "米" ("Mi," rice) in the word "America." It was also in this period, that the word "United States of America" began to be abbreviated into "美" ("Mei") and 国 ("Guo")" or "合众国" ("He Zhong Guo," the translation of "United States").
It is worth noting that it was Elijah Coleman Bridgman, the first American Protestant Christian missionary appointed to China, to translate the word "United States of America" into "亚美理驾合众国" ("Ya Mei Li Jia He Zhong Guo"). It also seems that the United States insisted that the Chinese government would use in its Chinese version of the 1844 The Treaty of Wanghia (also known as "Treaty of peace, amity, and commerce between the United States and the Chinese Empire," which was signed after the Qing government lost in the 1840 Opium War) the translation "亚美理驾" to refer to America, exactly because of the word "美" ("Mei," beautiful).
The "Westernization Movement"
Following the military disasters of the Opium Wars, the Qing Dynasty decided that it was time to launch a campaign of military, diplomatic, fiscal, and educational reforms. This was the beginning of the Westernization movement (1861-95) as the Qing power thought to strengthen itself by introducing Western technology.
It was in this period that the name of the United States of America changed from "亚美理驾合众国" ("Ya Mei Li Jia He Zhong Guo") to "美利坚合众国" ("Mei Li Jian He Zhong Guo"). According to existing documents, in 1860, Zeng Guofan, a famous minister of the Qing Dynasty, wrote a letter to Emperor Xianfeng, hoping to wipe out the Taiping Rebellion (1850–64) with the help of foreigners. In the document, Zeng Guofan used the name "美利坚" ("Mei Li Jian") for the first time.
Since then, "美利坚合众国" ("Mei Li Jian He Zhong Guo"), "美利坚" ("Mei Li Jian") and "美国" ("Mei Guo"), the Chinese full and short names of the United States of America have been gradually shaped and confirmed. For example, in the Chinese version of "The International Opium Convention," also known as the "1912 Opium Convention," (signed by the Qing government during the Reign of Emperor Xuantong, the last emperor of the Qing Dynasty, before his abdication) the United States of America is referred to as "美利坚合众国" ("Mei Li Jian He Zhong Guo").
Interestingly, Japan's translation of the name of the United States of America was influenced by China. For example, in the Edo era, the Japanese Kanji's (the Japanese pronunciation of 汉字Han Zi, which means Chinese character) translation of "United States of America" used in the Kanagawa Treaty, signed between Japan and the United States in 1854, was "米利坚" ("Mi Li Jian;" "米," "Mi," means rice) + 合众国 ("He Zhong Guo"). This is the reason why in Japanese, the United States is also known as Beikoku (米国; short form in Kanji characters of 米利坚+ 合众国), i.e., the "rice country." In addition, Chinese also influenced the translation into Korean of the term United States of America. In Korean, 미국 (pronounced "miguk"), literally means "beautiful country."
The "Ugly Country"
However, in recent years, Chinese Communist Party (CCP) media and Chinese nationalists have started to refer to the United States of America not as "美（Mei) 国（Guo)," but as the "美丽国"("Mei Li Guo") or "漂亮国" ("Piao Liang Guo"). "Mei Li Guo" and "Piao Liang Guo" both mean "beautiful country," but with a sarcastic connotation. Furthermore, since 1991, when President George H. W. Bush described the United States as "the beacon of freedom in a searching world" in his third State of the Union address, some Chinese people ironically call the United States the "灯塔国" ("Deng Ta Guo"), meaning the "Beacon Country," as they believe that the United States does not live up to the self-description.
At the same time, as competition and military tensions are growing between Beijing and Washington, many nationalists known as "五毛党"（Wu Mao Dang, the 50-Cent Party, i.e., avid supporters of the CCP government or the personnel employed by the CCP government, who allegedly receive 50 cents for every pro-government post they post on the internet), as well as some official CCP public opinion influencers recently started to use the antonym of "美（Mei） + 国（Guo)" ("beautiful country") that is "丑国"（"Chou Guo"), meaning the "Ugly Country," to refer to and derogate the United States of America.
*Anna Mahjar Barducci is a MEMRI Senior Research Fellow.