Why do Dominicans call oranges ‘chinas’?

Why do Dominicans call oranges ‘chinas’?

Oranges are known as ‘chinas’ in the Dominican Republic because they come from China. Surely not! Everybody knows that oranges come from the Mediterranean. Spain and Israel are famous for their citrus exports with their Seville, Valencia and Jaffa varieties. Morocco is also an important exporter of oranges. But if you scratch the surface and dig a little deeper you will find that in fact this is true, oranges come from – China!

This was news to me. I had never associated citrus fruit with East Asia, which has always evoked more exotic associations of fruits like the mango, lychee, rambutan and kumquat, not to mention the infamous ‘stinky’ fruit, the durian. Turns out that Dominicans have known better all along.

To corroborate this thesis, Dominican Cooking reader Lisybet in New York has done some research and found that sweet oranges originally made their way from China into Burma and from Burma to India. The word ‘orange’ is derived from the Sanskrit ‘naranga.’ Though lemons have been well known in the Mediterranean region since pre-Christian times, sweet oranges arrived from India into the Mediterranean and by the time the Roman Empire had fallen, the fruit was thriving on the Italian peninsula.

In the sixth and seventh centuries, Muslim armies overran a vast territory stretching from India to Spain and thereby allowed Arab traders to introduce further varieties of the fruit to Europe in the Middle Ages. Northern Europe grew acquainted with oranges when they were brought home by Crusaders returning from the Mediterranean and Middle East.

Why do Dominicans call oranges ‘chinas’?

Traveling in the other direction, the colonizing Portuguese had also introduced to Europe a variety of sweet orange from India. Then in 1635, the Chinese orange landed in Lisbon and quickly replaced the pre-existing bitter form from India as the European favorite. These better-flavored introductions encouraged the expansion of orange consumption and cultivation throughout Europe.

In summation oranges originated in Southeast Asia, spread from there in successive waves to the Mediterranean/Europe, eventually making their way to the Americas. But the variety of sweet orange we enjoy today was spread by Portugal directly from China!

It makes one wonder whether this is like a linguistic time-capsule. What I mean is that nowadays the information that ‘oranges came from China’ is not a widely known fact. Pasta, yes. But oranges?

The Spaniards who settled in the Dominican Republic during the 15th century were aware of the Moors and the Crusaders bringing oranges from Asia because it had happened within their historical memories. They were also neighbours of Portugal and were very aware of what was then the relatively recent history of the sweet orange from China, which was being promoted in Lisbon, hence the word ‘china’ for oranges. The memory has faded in the rest of the world, but in the Dominican Republic at least, the word and the history are alive and well.

The next time someone scoffs at this particular Dominicanism, fill them in on the story behind this linguistic quirk.

Lisybet and Aunt Ilana

In Spanish see: Por qué a las naranjas le llamamos chinas

Photo no. 2 Licensed from Istockphoto

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{ 14 comments… add one }

  • Frankie August 20, 2014, 3:58 AM

    Just to clarify, not all dominicans call oranges “chinas”. I’m form Santiago, in the north and we all called them “naranjas” like the proper term. This applies to Monte Cristi, Puerto Plata, Valverde, Nagua, La Vega, etc.
    The whole Cibao calls it by their proper name: naranja.

    Now, they called chinas in the east (including the capital city) and in the south (azua, barahona).

    When I traveled to Santo Domingo, it always makes it funny they calling oranges “chinas”, which I used as an opportunity to “correct” them lol.

  • Angelica July 31, 2013, 11:13 AM

    Great article.

    I’ve always known oranges as china. :)

  • LUIS June 24, 2013, 1:42 AM

    NARANJA IS USED DULCE Y AGRIA…………..JAPANASE USED THE WORD CHINA TO OFFEND CHINESE FARMERS AS WE USE THE WORDS CAMPESINOS JIBAROS OR GUAJIROS IN OUR ANTILLES….NARANJA WHEN GREEN IS SOUR AND WHEN RIPES TURNS YELLOW LIKE THE SUN ….SO BE CAREFUL NOT TO CALL ASIANS CHINOS,JUST CALL ASIATICOS IS PROPER THAN CALLING THEM PEASANTS…..CHINA FOR THE SWEET OR NARANJA FOR THE SOUR..JUST LIKE PLATANOS WHEN GREEN ANG MADUROS WHEN RIPE IS THAT SIMPLE.

  • Russ Offord May 23, 2013, 11:45 AM

    I’ve heard Dominicans refer to jugo ‘chino’, too. (not chinola) ;)

    • Aunt Clara May 24, 2013, 10:24 AM

      Chinola is passion fruit, china is orange. Chino is just somebody from China. :)

  • Malena December 13, 2012, 9:22 PM

    Wow, I really had no idea Dominicans call oranges chinas (and bitter oranges “naranjas agrias” apparently!) as we Puerto Ricans do. Whenever I’ve heard Dominicans that live here in PR call oranges chinas I always assumed that they had picked that up from living here for so long. Thanks for the explanation!

    • Aunt Clara December 13, 2012, 9:31 PM

      DR and PR have much more in common than we normally realize.

  • Ina Lipkowitz December 1, 2012, 8:45 AM

    Did you know, by the way, that in German the fruit is called an “Apfelsine,” literally, “Chinese Apple”?

    • Aunt Clara December 13, 2012, 9:30 PM

      In Danish it’s called appelsin, possibly from Germanic origin.

      I love words. :)

  • Andy September 15, 2012, 2:53 PM

    Thank you for taking your time to explain it. I as well as a dominican, always wondered why we call Oranges “chinas” and not naranjas dulce, but we call sour oranges “naranjas agrias” and not “chinas agrias”.

  • alfonso February 6, 2012, 5:09 PM

    the scientific name of the fruit in latin is Citrus Sinensis (citric from china) so in DR we have a correct name for the oranges

    • Jose August 12, 2012, 5:11 PM

      Never heard anyone called it china, and I’ve been dominican all my life. We call it naranja.

      • Aunt Clara August 12, 2012, 7:16 PM

        Ask around.

        I am also Dominican born and bred and it surprises me you have never heard this.

  • Marie April 20, 2011, 9:09 AM

    Just to let you know, not just the Dominicans, people from Puerto Rico also.