Around the turn of the twentieth century, late Qing (1644–1911) thinkers settled on an ancient term, Zhongguo, as an appropriate name for the nation-form to supplant the empire that had run its course. The renaming was directly inspired by the “Western” idea of “China,” which had no equivalent in native geopolitical conceptions of the area so designated and “mis-recognized” its historical political configurations. The renaming called for radical re-signification of the idea of Zhongguo, the political and cultural space it presupposed, and the identification it demanded of its constituencies. Crucial to its realization was the reimagination of the past and the present’s relationship to it. This essay explores the reasons late Qing intellectuals felt it necessary to rename the country, the inspiration they drew upon, and the spatial and temporal presuppositions of the new idea of China/Zhongguo. Their reasoning reveals the modern origins of historical claims that nationalist and Orientalist historiography has endowed with timeless longevity.

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