China has always been the 800-pound gorilla of East Asia. The historical interstate system of East Asia was remarkably stable for more than two millennia, with China as the central state and Japan, Korea, and Vietnam on its periphery. This configuration is so ingrained in Chinese ways of thinking that the Chinese name for China, Zhongguo, literally means “central state.” When outsiders call China the Middle Kingdom, they are just using a version of China’s own name for itself.
China’s neighbors also recognize the centrality of China in their languages. China is called the “central state” or some variation on that theme in Korean, Japanese, and Vietnamese. The terms merely reflect the reality that China had always been the dominant country of East Asia, the one country that every other country in the system had to work with or against.
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