Persia is Iran

Iran is Persia, Iran is not Iraq, and Persia is not Bosnia


Persia is Iran
by davinci

I've always considered Reza Shah Pahlavi's 1935 decree requesting that the country formerly known as Persia be referred to as "Iran" by foreign governments with which it had diplomatic relations to be a mistake. Naturally, once governments began to refer to the country as Iran, their citizens followed suit. This change at once led to a severing in the Western consciousness of Iran from the Persian culture of classical antiquity, and also created a situation in which the name of the country can easily become confounded with that of its neighbour and recurrent rival, Iraq, a name which entered the mainstream vocabulary of Western languages only in 1932 with the founding of the Kingdom of Iraq in that year.

Actually, in Arabic and Persian, the names Iraq and Iran sound quite different, and they are not very similar to each other when written in the Perso-Arabic script: عراق vs. ايران (note especially that they begin with two distinct vowels). But when written in English, they differ by only one letter at the end, and to an Anglophone ear, they sound almost the same (especially after they have been absolutely butchered by certain supposed speakers of English).

I believe that, had Iran retained its traditional exonym of "Persia" in English and its analogue in other Western languages, it would have been much more difficult for policy makers in the West to manipulate public opinion about the country. Imagine Western leaders trying to vilify a country named "Greece" (“Wait a minute -- you mean the Greece of Socrates?”) as opposed to one named "Hellas" (“You wanna know where those Hell-asians can go?”).

The United States, for example, has backed both Iran and Iraq at different times against the other, switching sides whenever it was convenient to do so, and hardly anyone even noticed. This would have been just slightly more difficult if the two countries had noticeably different names. Considering the way these two countries flipped between being allies and enemies of the United States, they might as well have been named Eurasia and Eastasia

The names of the two countries in Chinese are just transliterations of their names in their respective native languages into Chinese characters based on pronunciation in the Mandarin dialect. As can be seen from the photo above, Iran is transliterated as 「伊朗」 (yī​ lǎng​), while Iraq is given the transliteration 「伊拉克」 (yī ​lā ​kè​). They both begin with the same character 「伊」 (yī), which can lead to confusion, since the first character of a country's name often serves as an abbreviation for that country in Chinese once context has been established. For example, 「伊軍」 can mean either "Iranian army" or "Iraqi army", depending on the context. Of course, if these two armies are fighting one another, a Chinese writer or speaker will by necessity have to refer to the combatants as 「伊朗軍」 and 「伊拉克軍」. Incidentally, Israel is transliterated 「以色列」 (yǐ ​sè ​liè​), with a different first character, sparing anyone reading about the recent history of the Middle East in Chinese from even more confusion.

Another interesting confusion related to the name of Persia/Iran is the old Chinese name for the country, 「波斯」 (bō​ sī​), which was originally a transliteration of "Parsa". Because what is considered the standard dialect for the purposes of communication changes with the political tides as well as with geographic location, and Chinese dialects may differ in their pronunciations of the same character, and the pronunciations of the dialects themselves have shifted over time, the name as it is pronounced today bears only a slight resemblance to "Parsa". (Complicating matters further is the fact that "Parsa" itself has undergone a change in pronunciation in Persian. In fact, the Iranian province that is situated in historic Parsa is today called "Fars", due to the fact that the Arabic-speaking conquerors of Iran in the 7th century CE did not have the phoneme "p" in their language, for which they substituted "f" instead).

Coincidentally, however, the current transliteration of Bosnia into Chinese, 「波斯尼亚」 (bō ​sī ​ní ​yà​), begins with the characters for the old Chinese name for Persia. I have encountered more than a few Chinese who thought that today's Bosnians are (or are related to or descended from) the Persians described in Chinese history. To add to the confusion, the appellation "Persian" was applied not just to what we would today call "Iranians", but also to the inhabitants of Greater Iran, i.e., Persians, Medes, Parthians, Sogdians, Bactrians, and so forth. "Persians" are one of the more common non-Han ethnicities encountered in the wuxia genre of literature, where they are portrayed as followers of a religion which mixes together elements from Manichaeism, Zoroastrianism, and Islam, and in which a sacred fire figures prominently. The fact that "Persians" are vaguely misremembered as Muslims (when, through large spans of history, Persians in China would have been Zoroastrians, Manichaens, or even Buddhists) and Bosnians are thought to be a mostly Muslim people further cements this misidentification.

As an example of this mix-up, these two reviews in English of the classic wuxia television series 「天蠶變」 both make repeated references to "Bosnia" and "Bosnians", when in fact a part of the story takes place in Central Asia or Greater Iran, and the characters are intended to be the natives of these regions.
Another example of the anachronistic association of Persians with Islam in Chinese culture is the English title given to the movie「武林聖火令」, namely, "Moslem Sacred Fire Decree". Neither "Muslim" nor indeed anything related to Islam appear in the original Chinese title of the movie, or (to my knowledge) in the movie itself. The word "Moslem" in this case seems to have been a shorthand for "pertaining to a religion originating from Persia (or thereabouts) which we're too lazy to properly name or research". Clearly, any Persians tending to a sacred fire would most likely have been Zoroastrians, and were certainly not Muslims.

Dr. Ehsan Yarshater, in a communication published in Iranian Studies (vol. 22, no. 1, 1989, pp. 62-65), argues for the use of the name "Persia" for the country when writing or speaking in English. (The text of his originally untitled communication may also be found here, where it has been given the title "Persia or Iran, Persian or Farsi". Strangely, this copy of it seems to have been typed up by someone else from the original, as it introduces a number of typos, and also replaces "Rumi" with "Molana".) He notes that the words "Persia" and "Persian" have positive connotations in English, which the words "Iran" and "Iranian" lack:

The adoption of the name Iran no doubt undermined the country's cultural reputation and dealt a severe blow to its long-term interests. To educated people everywhere the name Persia is associated with a number of pleasing notions that in the main emphasize the country's cultural heritage. One speaks of Persian art, Persian literature, Persian carpets, Persian miniatures, Persian mosques, and Persian gardens, all of which attest to a general refinement of taste and culture. It is true that Persia also brings to the Western mind the Persian wars with Greece, and the home of an absolute monarchy that is often contrasted to Greek democracy; but even then Persia does not evoke the image of a weak or backward country, but rather of a robust and mighty empire. Its biblical associations are particularly favorable because of Cyrus freeing the Jews from their Babylonian captivity and his assistance in the rebuilding of the Temple in Jerusalem.

To his list can also be added "Persian cats" and "Persian food". He writes in a similar vein about the use of "Farsi" for the name of the language instead of "Persian":

An egregious consequence of continuing use of the name "Iran" and its disassociation with "Persia" is the recent currency in English of "Farsi" instead of "Persian." Soon we should probably witness, as a result, the severance of the connection between "Persian," in phrases such as "Persian poetry" and "Persian literature," and Farsi or, for that matter, with Iran. Days would not be far away, if we persist in using "Farsi" for Persian, when people would think that Ferdowsi, Rumi, and Hafez wrote in a dead language called "Persian," hardly anyone realizing that "Farsi" is the same language in which one of the most exquisite literatures of the world is written.

The Society for Iranian Linguistics maintains a page with some links to opinions by several Iranian (uh, I mean Persian) linguists on this topic. also preserves a thread on this topic from Adabiyat, a scholarly discussion list for Persian, Arabic, Turkish, Urdu, and related literatures, in which some strong opinions are expressed. (At the present time, redirects to a dating site.)

I agree with Dr. Yarshater that the name for the country in English should be "Persia", and that its language should be called "Persian". To repeat two arguments that many others have already made, we don't say "Deutschland" for Germany or "Zhongguo" for China when speaking in English, and furthermore, it is in fact an honour for a country to be called a name in a foreign language that bears little resemblance to its name in its native language, an honour earned through a long history of interaction and cultural exchange.

The situation for the name of Iran in Chinese, however, is a little more complex. Currently, there is a possibility of some confusion with the name of Iraq. But if it reverts back to the old transliteration of "Parsa", the country will most certainly become confused with Bosnia in Chinese language media, or at the very least a much stronger association between the two countries than actually exists will be drawn in the minds of Chinese speakers, in the short term. In the long term, however, I believe that this will actually clear up the confusion.

The same type of relationship occurs between the names of India and Indonesia in the Chinese language, that is, the Chinese name for India, 「印度」 (yìn​ dù​), begins the Chinese name for Indonesia, 「印度尼西亞」 (yìn​ dù​ ní​ xī​ yà​). But in this case, the name of Indonesia actually does derive from the name of India, whereas no such etymological relationship exists between the names of Persia and Bosnia. Nevertheless, speakers of Chinese never mistake "India" for a shortened, corrupted, or archaic form of "Indonesia", and the reason is that "India" is still being used for the name of a country.

The government of Iran/Persia should really have protested when the modern Chinese transliteration of Bosnia first appeared, but since nothing was done at the time, Bosnia has inadvertently usurped the cultural associations connected with Persia in the Chinese imagination. The only way to repair the damage would be for the government of Iran/Persia to vigorously insist that it is the country formerly known as 「波斯」 in Chinese history and literature, whatever its current name is now.
Persia is Iran, Iran is Persia, Iran is not Iraq, Persia is not Bosnia.

NOTE: This essay was written for a general (primarily non-Iranian) audience, and was first posted here. I thought that the readers of might be interested in it.



To Davinci

by choghok on

First of all I did not mean that you are ignorant. Second since you are Chinese you know the meaning of the name Qin better than me. I just remember seeing a Chinese movie where the story of creation of china was shown and in the end as I understood it they chose a name for the new  empire and they call it somwthing like "our nation", but maybe I am remembering it incorrectly???

Persian does not apply really to one geographical region like the example you described. Persia does not have anything to do with the province "fars". Persian regions is much bigger than that, it covers all the area where the mother toungs is Persian like Khorasan, Kerman, Fars, Esfehan, Half Tehran Area(other half is Azari), Mazandaran, and som other areas. Also some parts of Afghanistan and Central Asia are Persian areas.With Persian regions I do not mean the historical Persia, since that is much bigger than todays Iran and covers even more ethnicities but just the regions that cover Persian speaking people.

I think we need a nominator for all of us so we can gather under the same banner, and I think Persian and Persia is not that.


On the other hand to change back to an old name that no ones uses anymore would confuse the world even more.



by Kaveh Parsa on

The ability of policy makers in the west to manipulate the opinions of their public, has everything do do with the policies of IRI and chants of death to this and that country and nothing to do with Iran's name. 

Iranians invariably refer to Britain as "engelestan". The fact that the Iranian governments have to use "beritania" (GB) has not stopped Iranian people from using their preferred name.

Also FYI: In 1949, the Iranian government announced that both "Persia" and "Iran" could officially be used interchangeably.



@Kaveh Parsa

by davinci on

Have you read the essay itself? I understand that Persia is not the same as Iran for an Iranian, but it is (or, rather, was) for speakers of English or Chinese. That was the whole point I've been trying to make.

Do Iranians always call other countries by their own names in their native languages when speaking in Persian? No. According to you, wouldn't that make Iranians imperialists?

-- davinci



by davinci on

In case it's not clear, I am Chinese (from Hong Kong), and furthermore, Chinese (Cantonese) is my native language. The name for China in Chinese does not mean "our country", it means "middle kingdom/nation", i.e, the country in the centre of the world. I am well aware that there are different Chinese languages, but in all of them, the historical name for Iran (and the Greater Iran region) has been a name that is analogous to "Persia". If you have any specific example where what I've written about the Chinese language shows "ignorance", please bring it up instead of resorting to name-calling.

The point that I've been trying to make is that even though "Persia" and "Persian" are words that conjure up a small region and an ethnic group among the inhabitants of the country itself, the analogues of those words in other languages do not carry those limited connotations. It is shortsighted to believe that they do, and chauvinistic to insist that they should.

Just ask yourself this question: what if China had insisted that Iranians referred to China as "Zhongguo" when speaking in Persian? Would you not think that this was arrogant and offensive as well as culturally disruptive? (In fact, I also object to the renaming of "Peking" to "Beijing" when speaking in English, for the same reason.)

You wrote that "[s]ince old times the name China has been used... [it] is the name of a nation". Exactly. Just as "Persia" is the (historic) name of the nation its inhabitants call Iran, and "Persian" is any inhabitant of that nation and not just those belonging to a specific ethnic group. This was the standard usage in English up until 1935. Note that both Qin and Han are originally the names of Chinese dynasties. You're writing as if China (Qin) has always referred to the nation and Han has always referred to the ethnic group, when in fact the dynastic names were borrowed much later to draw a distinction between the country and its major ethnic group.

There are any number of country names in English which are derived from the major ethnic group in the country, and these are used without confusion. If an English speaker needs to distinguish between any inhabitant of Persia/Iran and a member of its major ethnic group, he can always say "Persian" vs. "ethnic Persian" (cf. "Frenchman" vs. "ethnic French", etc.). One could also easily imagine that, had history happened differently, the ethnic group we refer to as "Han" today might have been called "Qin" (i.e., "Chinese") instead, in which case an English speaker would again have to distinguish between a Chinese (inhabitant of China) and an ethnic Chinese (member of the Qin/Han ethnic group).

The comparison with Great Britain/England doesn't hold, because those are actually different entities. (And besides, I know Iranians who do refer to the entirety of Great Britain as "Inglistan" in every day sloppy usage.) When speaking in English, Persia refers to the same entity as Iran.

Your other example just supports my case: we don't call Spain by the name the Spanish call it, and we would be rightly offended if they insisted that we do so.

What I think is so interesting about Iranians who don't want their country to be called "Persia" in other languages is that the thinking process behind this seems to be exactly the reverse of the way Westerners think. Greece protested the use of the name Macedonia by (the former Yugoslav Republic of) Macedonia, because the Greeks know that the name Macedonia is historically associated with Greece (e.g., in English), and don't want those associations to be transferred to another country. But Iranians who argue that Persia-is-not-Iran do not seem to be able to separate what the word "Persia" means in their own language from what it means in other languages.

-- davinci



by Kaveh Parsa on

are you referring to my comment as worst (dumbest) or the blog itself? not clear!!


@ Kaveh Parsa

by MiNeum71 on

This is the worst, because dumbest, comment I've ever read concerning this topic. You made my day :)



Interesting post ....

by tsinoizit on

while you go by "Islam goes to hell", you say "Iran's problem is huge and first thing is that if all Iranian do not get alone toghether and do not have a common goal which is to fight this regime , how can we speak of any cultural disinfection !? "  Hypocrisy at its best.  You appear angry.  All I can say to that is ... good luck.


the same way that England is not Britain

by Kaveh Parsa on


Abyssinia is not Ethiopia

Persia is also not Iran

it is a form of imperialism to impose latin/western NAMES when native ones exist.  



Your example with china faults!

by choghok on

First of all the name China refers to Qin which was a dynasty in an old times, the name that the chinese use for their country means "our country". Han Chinese as you mentioned make 90% of population. Since old times the name China has been used, Chinese is really not a language or ethnic group, it is the name of a nation. When you talk about chinese language it is only shows ignorance since there are many chinese languages and the official one is Mandarin. 

Another example is Spain where Spanish has been used by outsiders as the name of the language where actually spanian is actually name of the country and in it you have many languages like Catalan, Castillian (that is called Spanish) and Basque. The same thing also could be said about Great Britain.

The name Persia on the oher hand points out an ethnic group, a culture and a language. This group makes a subset of people in Iran and by putting the name Persia on Iran we suppress other minorities their right to exist. It would have been as if Great Britain would change its name to Englans or China changes name to Han or Spain would be Castilia.

And about Perses you are probably right but Persia is still the greek form of the name.


Reply to comments

by davinci on

My previous reply was to choghok.  I'm still getting used to the commenting system. 

To reply to the other comments, I'm not suggesting that Iranians refer to the country as "Persia" (or "Pars") in the Persian (Farsi) language, as some people seem to have thought.  I'm just pointing out that insisting that a country be called by its name in its native language, even when speaking other languages, is misguided.  Obviously, the change of "Persia" to "Iran" is a fait accompli, and even I normally use the words "Iran" and "Iranians" when speaking of the country and the people (and because the government of the country has requested that this be done). 

But I will insist, when speaking in English or Chinese, on referring to the language as "Persian", because that's what it's been called for thousands of years, and there's no obligation for an English or Chinese speaker to defer to the native name for the language.  That word for the name of the language is associated with world class poetry in English, and with both magical and scientific/technological knowledge in Chinese, whereas no such associations exist for "Farsi".  Changing the name of the Persian language in these other languages is culturally damaging to them and to their associated cultures.

The fact that Iranians distinguish between Pars (the province) and Iran (the country) in the Persian language has no relevance to the argument.  Again, I draw the comparison to China, whose name in most languages derives from a specific dynasty, the Qin, which no longer exists, and which ruled over only a small fraction of today's China.   I've never known of a Chinese person objecting to the name of China in other languages due to the fact that the word "Qin" is associated with only a small region of today's China, or with specific historical rulers.  I understand that "Persia is not Iran" in Persian, in the exact same way that "Qin is not Zhongguo" in Chinese.  But Persia is Iran, and China is Zhongguo, when speaking or writing in English.

-- davinci


Comparison with "Chinese" vs. "Han"

by davinci on

Whether one name is "better" is subjective and depends on one's criteria.  I wrote the essay as a non-Iranian/non-Persian who speaks two languages where the change of name has caused a great deal of confusion to other non-Iranian/non-Persian people, so from my perspective, "Persia" is the "better" name.

I'll try to address each of your points in turn.

1.  There's a difference between a situation like Turkey, where the government wanted to promote a new identity to unify the country, with a case like Persia/Iran, where the people have been known to outsiders as "Persians" for thousands of years. 

The closest comparison is with China.  "Ethnic Chinese", i.e., Han Chinese, make up more than 90% of the population.  And yet the term "Chinese" is used today to refer to all people of Chinese nationality, regardless of ethnicity.  The language has evolved so that a different word, "Han", refers to members of the major ethnic group.  If Iran had retained the name "Persia", no doubt a different word would have evolved to describe the majority ethnicity.

2. I think what you have written is not quite correct.  The similarity of the two names "Perseus" and "Persia" might have led the Greeks to posit that the Persians are descended from a man named Perses (a son of Perseus), but the name "Persia" must have already existed for that confusion to have taken place.  (Of course, if you insist on saying "Parsian", you'll likely be mistaken to be a resident of Paris.)

3. Again, I will refer to the example of China.  The most immediate associations that most native English speakers think of when they hear the words "China" or "Chinese" have nothing to do with Communism. People understand that it just happens that China has a particular government right now, whereas China, the country, has thousands of years of history and civilisation. 

You're right that the negative things associated with the current government of Persia/Iran would still have been associated with the country regardless of the country's name, but it would have been much more difficult for those associations to stick or to become central to the country's image when pitted against thousands of years of history of high culture and civilisation.  People associate religious fanaticism, terrorism, etc., with "Iran" and "Iranian" because those words are a clean slate, and those associations don't have any entrenched competition to dislodge.  I think that, if the name of the country had remained "Persia", people in the English-speaking world are much more likely to think, "The Persians have an ancient civilisation but are going through a rough patch in their history right now", as opposed to, "Those Iranians have been troublemakers ever since that country has existed."  If you read the current English-language literature on Iran and compare it with that on China, you'll notice this difference right away.

-- davinci


Ahhhh, MRX1,

by MiNeum71 on

What? Do you compare difference of languages with difference of termini? Deutschland is Germany is Allemagne is Alemania is Germania, all one terminus in different languages. Persia is NOT Iran, Persia is Persien is Perse.

No, we can't do the same.


maziar 58


by maziar 58 on

the essay is to heavy for me to comprehend but I loved it so much: ni hao    xi.xi    shi shi        

how you say down with IRI in mandarin ?           Maziar


Iran has become a dirty word

by FrankiPaykani on

The Islamic Republic has brought such ill repute to the name "Iran", as it is reffered to by the vast majority of people outside Iran, even today. I think we should stay as far away from it as possible, after the revolution. Most non-Iranians I know don't know what I mean when I use "IRI", because in most of the world, the words Islamic republic are ignored.

Persia is a beautiful word, and the fact that the borders have changed over the years should have little to do with wheter or not the name can still be used. Persia was small, then it was big, then it was small again. Not a big deal. 

The new secular Iran that rises from the ashes left by the evil Islamic Republic Regime, should be called Persia.

The name Persia has imediate recognition and is well respected around the world. 


You could really keep both

by MRX1 on

You could use the world persia in the international arena (communication, U.N, etc) and then use the world Iran for domestic and regional use. After all we were always Iranian. The land of Iran and culture of Iran  goes far beyond our enforced borders. When a great Ferdousi talks about Iran it does not refer to the present territory but to all Iran. He says Darighast Iran ke viran shavad.....  

Germans call their country Deuchland  among themselves. only in the international arena it is Germany. We could do the same.



by MiNeum71 on

I like the difference between Persia as the cultural region and Iran as the territorial country.



Iran is a better name!

by choghok on

Iran is a better name since:

1. Persians do make about 60% of the population of Iran and in best case 2/3 of its area. All the ethnic groups in Iran who do not speak Persian as mother tounge but tounges like Kurdi, Luri, Azari, Arabic, Baluchi, Talesh and so on are also Iranians, by calling all of us Persians we try to make everyone Persian that is like in Turkey where by enforcing the law to call everyone Turk Atatürk removed the identity of the minorities in Turkey.

2. Persia and Persian is actually derived from Greek Mythology where Perseus one of the bastard children of Zeus left Greece for and his children where named Persians. If you now feel very proud of your origin you should name yourself Parsi at least, that is the right terminology.

3. A name is not positive or negative in itself, the world Persian does not sound negative since it is not used in todays world. If Reza Shah would not have changed the name to Iran then Ahmaghinejad and his predecessors would have pissed on that name just as well and it would have had a neative feeling to it and now you would be telling that blond girl in the bar that you are from Iran, and it would turn out that her name is actually Fariba :-).

Islam goes to Hell .

Hi there ..

by Islam goes to Hell . on

Everything you say is very right , however what Iran is facing NOW is a total disaster of Epical proportion in regards to it's crooked Islamic /Arabic imposed regime to most Iranian , despite all the facts that Persian we were conquered by those bastard of Medineh ( Alah Of Medineh ) , there are so many Iranians Muslim in Iran still cherrishing Islam and continuing their own believe in Islam , what Iran needs FIRST is the toppling of this regime and it's replacement by a National Democracy regime , after all these political changes then we can talk about cultural renewal of our Persian values and total abolishment of Islam's negative influences on our culture .   Iran has so MUCH problems to deal with , Iran's problem is huge and first thing is that if all Iranian do not get alone toghether and do not have a common goal which is to fight this regime , how can we speak of any cultural disinfection !?   See you next time !