The Sanskrit name "Cina" is commonly believed to have been derived from the Qin (Tsin or Chin in older transliterations) dynasty which ruled in China from 221 BC, or the preceding state of Qin which existed since the 9th century BC.
The Greco-Romans referred to China as Sina, or Sinae.
There are however a number of other suggestions for the origin of the word. Some Chinese and Indian scholars argued for the state of Jing (荆) as the likely origin of the name. Another theory by Geoff Wade is based on a polity known as Yelang, in what is now China's Guizhou province. The inhabitants of this region referred to themselves as zina.
In the Mahabharata, the Chinas appear together with the Kiratas among the armies of king Bhagadatta of Pragjyotisa (Assam). In the Sabhaparvan, the same king is said to be surrounded by the Kiratas, and the Cinas. Also in the Bhismaparvan, the army of Bhagadatta is said to consist of the Kirtas and the "yellow-colored" Cinas.
Bhishamaparva of Mahabharata also lists the Cinas with the Mlechha tribes of the north like the Yavanas, Kambojas, Kuntalas, Hunas, Parasikas, Darunas, Ramanas, Dasamalikas. These verses date to fifth century AD when the Hunas came into contact with Sassanian dynasty of Persia.
Shantiparvan of Mahabharata groups the Cinas with the tribes of the Uttarapatha viz the Yavanas, Kiratas, Gandharas, Shabras, Barbaras, Shakas, Tusharas, Kanakas, Pahlavas, Andhras, Madrakas, Ramathas, and the Kambojas and states them as living the lives of Dasyus. These verses of epic expect these tribes to perform certain duties which are different from those performed by the Brahmanas, Kshatriyas, Vaishyas, and Shudras.
Vanaparvan of the Mahabharata states that the territory of the Cinas can be reached by a land-route across the country of the Kiratas in the mountain regions of the north.
China is mentioned as one among the northern kingdoms: Mahabharata, Book 6, chapter 9 (MBh.6.9) mentions like this:- Among the tribes of the north are the Mlecchas, and the Kruras, the Yavanas, the Chinas, the Kamvojas, the Darunas, and many Mleccha tribes; the Sukritvahas, the Kulatthas, the Hunas, and the Parasikas; the Ramanas, and the Dasamalikas. Chinas were mentioned along with Chivukas and Pulindas and Khasas, Hunas, Pahlavas, Sakas, Yanavas, Savaras, Paundras, Kiratas, Kanchis, Dravidas, Sinhalas and Keralas. All these tribes were described as Mlechha tribes. Here they were described as the protectors of sage Vasistha and his cow against the attack of king Viswamitra. (1,177)
Pahlavas and the Daradas and the various tribes of the Kiratas and Yanavas and Sakas and the Harahunas and Chinas and Tukharas and the Sindhavas and the Jagudas and the Ramathas and the Mundas and the inhabitants of the kingdom of women and the Tanganas and the Kekayas and the Malavas and the inhabitants of Kasmira were mentioned at (3,51) as bringing tribute to Pandava king Yudhishthira.
The Yanavas, the Kiratas, the Gandharvas, the Chinas, the Savaras, the Barbaras, the Sakas, the Tusharas, the Kankas, the Pathavas, the Andhras, the Madrakas, the Paundras, the Pulindas, the Ramathas, the Kamvojas were mentioned together as tribes beyond the kingdoms of Aryavarta. The Aryavarta kings had doubts on dealing with them. (12,64)
China is mentioned in the travel-descriptions of the Pandavas. The passage below, describes these Chinas, to be located somewhere in the high Himalayas: Mahabharata book 3, chapter 176 (MBh 3.176):- Leaving the place called Badari (Badrinath in Uttarakhand) and crossing the difficult Himalayan regions, and leaving behind them, the countries of China, Tukhara, Darada and all the climes of Kulinda, rich in heaps of jewels, those warlike men viz the Pandavas, reached the capital of Suvahu, the king of Pulindas (Kiratas).
Bhima mentions a "China king" Dhautamulaka, who caused the destruction of his own race (5,74). The name "Dhautamulaka" translates to "clean root", and might be a reference to the last Xia emperor Jie (1728–1675 BC).
"Deer skins from China" are mentioned at (5,86). King Dhritarashtra, wanted to give as present, a thousand deer-skins from China, to Vasudeva Krishna:- I will give him a thousand deer-skins brought from China and other things of the kind that may be worthy of his praise. During the Han Dynasty (between the 2nd century BC and 2nd century AD), deer skins were used to make token money notes representing 400,000 coins.
Kiskindhakanda of Valmiki's Ramayana makes reference to Cinas as well as Parama-Cinas and associates them with the trans-Himalayan tribes of the Daradas, Kambojas, the Yavanas, the Sakas, the Kiratas, the Bahlikas, the Rishikas, and the Tañkanas of the Uttarapatha.
The epic literature asserts that the Cinas, Khasas, Hunas, Shakas, Kambojas, Yavanas, Pahlavas, Kiratas, Sinhalas, Mlechchas etc. were created by sage Vashistha through the divine powers of cow Sabala or Nandini (Kamdhenu).
Bhuvanakosha section of numerous Puranas locates the Cinas along with the Tusharas, Pahlavas, Kambojas, and Barbaras in the Udichya or northern division of ancient India. There is yet another reference to China as Cina-maru as referred to in the Vayu Purana and Brahmanda Purana. However, at the same place, Matsya Purana mentions Vira-maru. China-maru or Vira-maru has been identified with the lands of Turkestan situated above And-khui in the north of Afghanistan (Dr K. P. Jayswal, Dr M. R. Singh).
The Cinas also find reference in the Buddhist play, Mudrarakshasa, where they are listed with other contemporary tribes, such as the Shakas, Yavanas, Kiratas, Cambojas, Bhalikas, Parasikas, Khasas, Gandharas, Kalutas, etc.
Buddhist text Milindapanho (see: Sacred Books of the East, xxxvi, 204), associates the Chinas with the Sakas, Yavanas, Kambojas and Vilatas(?) etc., and locates them in the western Tibet/Ladakh, according to Dr Michael Witzel.
Chanakya (c. 350-283 BC), the prime minister of the Maurya Empire and a professor at Takshashila University, refers to Chinese silk as "cinamsuka" (Chinese silk dress) and "cinapatta" (Chinese silk bundle) in his Arthashastra.
The Sanmoha Tantra speaks of the Tantric culture of the foreign countries like the Bahlika (Bactria), Kirata, Bhota (Tibet), Cina, Maha-Cina, Parasika, Airaka, Kambojas, Huna, Yavana, Gandhara and Nepala.
Around the 2nd century BC, the Laws of Manu describes the downfall of the Chinas, as well as many foreign groups in India:
Besides China and Parama-China, there is also a reference to Mahachina in the Manasollasa which text mentions the fabrics from Mahachina. It is thus possible that China probably referred to western Tibet or Ladakh, Mahachina to Tibet proper, and Parama-China to Mainland China.