The Chinese Wikipedia article describes the name of Russia, and many of its historical Chinese exonyms.

按照俄语发音“Россия”,其名称应翻译为“羅西亚”。元朝时根据蒙古语译为「斡羅思」[b],到清朝初年许多文献中曾称为「羅剎」[c],但在以国家相称时则多译为「鄂羅斯」[d]或「俄羅斯」。清乾隆年间官修《四库全书》时将其正式统一为“俄羅斯”或简称“俄国”,自此沿用至今。[12] 日本漢字與朝鮮漢字則將俄羅斯稱為「露西亞」(日语:ロシア roshia */?,韓語:노서아 noseoa */?[e]),此譯名較為接近俄語原始發音。

However, while the "罗斯" part corresponds to the "Rus" part of the name, the "俄" part seems to have no corresponding phoneme, either in Russian or any of the other language I have looked up.

up vote 31 down vote accepted

the "俄" part seems to have no corresponding phoneme, either in Russian or any of the other language I have looked up.

Yes it's peculiar in Chinese. It's realted to the Mongolian.

Reference: 郭文深.俄罗斯国家名称变迁考——从“罗刹”到“俄罗斯”

Summarize it in short:

From Yuan Dynasty, the Mongolian translated 罗斯 as oros (but not ros) followed by the Mongolian pronunciation habit, and then translated into Chinese character as 斡罗斯. In Mongolian, there's no words started from [r], such words are usually borrowed words. Then for these words, in order to make it conform to Mongolian pronunciation rules and incarnate Mongolian vowel harmony, the strong vowel of the first syllable will be brought forward. Then 罗斯"ros" became oros, then 斡罗斯.

In Qing dynasty, the Manchu didn't have direct contact with the Russian, they used the translation (especially the transliteration) of the Mongolian which is the intermediary between them. For Chinese characters they used 鄂罗斯 and 俄罗斯, until the Emperor QianLong unified them into 俄罗斯.

  1. “俄罗斯”不是从英文或俄文来的。可能是从蒙古文Oros来的。
  2. 在中国元明朝时称俄罗斯族为“罗斯”或“罗刹国”.当时蒙古族人用蒙语拼读俄文“ROCIA”时,在“R”前面加一个元音.因此,“ROCIA”就成了“OROCCIA”.满清政府时,蒙语的“OROCCIA”转译成汉语时,就成了“俄罗斯”.

  1. The name of "Éluósī" does not come from English or Russian. It may come from Mongolian Oros.
  2. During the Chinese Yuan and Ming dynasties the Russian ethnic group was called "Luósī" or "Luóchàguó". At that time as Mongol people read Russian "ROCIA" phonetically in Mongol, they added a vowel before the "R". So, "ROCIA" became "OROCCIA". During the Manchurian Qing government, as Mongol "OROCCIA" was translated into Chinese, it became "Éluósī".

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  • 3
    I advice you translate you answer to English to serve more people. – ltux Jul 9 '16 at 13:13
  • :),My English is poor,I'll try to translate. – andrew Jul 12 '16 at 4:36
  • Wow do you speak Mongolian language? – Lucius Hu Mar 2 '17 at 20:51
  • Well it's a great answer now! – hippietrail Jun 28 '17 at 5:01

After some searching, it seems that the name comes from the Mongolic/Tungusic language family group, of which Manchu is a member. This explains why the Qianlong Emperor decreed that the country be called by its Manchurian exonym. However, the reasons behind the appending of the "o" phoneme are unclear.

The "Oros" name is reflected in the languages of many other languages in the family which have a more extant distribution than Manchu, which is almost extinct. For example, Mongolian and Buryatian render it as Орос (Oros).

This paper from the (unfortunately paywalled) Northwestern Journal of Ethnology seems to suggest that the term comes from the Mongolian/Manchurian language family.

The word"oros", derived from Mongolian language, had been recorded in official historic materials from early times that it was used to refer to a sovereign State in Manchu language.

  • Manchu is almost extinct but Xibe/Xibo is pretty closely related and so far is still alive in northwest China. – hippietrail Jun 28 '17 at 5:02

斡羅思 is most probably the origin, which is from the Mongolian word Oros.

《新元史·列传·外国九》:“斡罗思,其族曰司拉弗哀。唐末,司拉弗哀人柳利哥兄弟三人皆有智勇,侵陵他族,为众部之长,其所居之地曰遏而罗斯,遂以此为部落之名。遏而罗斯急读为斡罗斯,亦译为兀鲁斯,又曰厄罗斯。”

Some believe Oros is the exclamation O + Ros.

  • 1
    +1 for the nice citation. However, is there any citation for the O+ros claim? – March Ho Jul 9 '16 at 11:31

Because most chinese speakers (and APAC natives) cannot properly pronounce a strong 'r/R' sound. Therefore, they use their closest match: /ə/

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