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-though I like the 3 dots in Beijing
May 2, 2007 12:22 PM   Subscribe

What's up with Chinese place names? When I was a kid looking at a map of China, it showed the capital as 'Peking(Peiping)'. Now it's Beijing, and there are other places like Guangzhou that used to have a name I recognized. I first noticed this in the late 80's and with people I knew who had gone there, but now it's ubiquitous. My question is not about why or if China changed the name, but why did the US usage change. Why just China? (we don't say Lisboa, Firenze, München, Moskva, etc.)

It strikes me as political, but I don't know what the politics are, or why it happened when it did. Is it something like- PRC uses Pinyin and Taiwan uses Wade-Giles and our government wants to suck up to PRC so we want everyone here to use Pinyin? This site says China "started to enforce its official name..." then. How do you enforce such a thing?
posted by MtDewd to Writing & Language (34 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
The new names are all Pinyin, which is a more accurate Romanization of Mandarin than the previous ones (Wade-Giles and Postal System Pinyin). Also, southern Chinese place names are now Romanized using the Mandarin pronunciation, not the Cantonese pronunciation. This Wikipedia article on Pinyin should explain it all.
posted by jbb7 at 12:29 PM on May 2, 2007


It isn't just China. Calcutta is now "Kolkota". Bombay is now "Mumbai". Ceylon is now "Sri Lanka".
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 12:45 PM on May 2, 2007


(we don't say Lisboa, Firenze, München, Moskva, etc.)

But we do say Istanbul (not Constantinople).
posted by hangashore at 1:01 PM on May 2, 2007 [1 favorite]


Here you go.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 1:09 PM on May 2, 2007


PRC uses Pinyin and Taiwan uses Wade-Giles and our government wants to suck up to PRC so we want everyone here to use Pinyin?

Yup, that's it, but what puzzles me is why everybody else is so eager to go along with it, and chastise people who use the "old" spellings. "Dude, it's Myanmar now, not Burma!" Dude, the people who want you to say "Myanmar" are the vicious military thugs who are keeping the country under their bootheels; Aung San Suu Kyi wants you to say Burma! Not to mention that it's absolutely your right to use traditional English forms, no matter what somebody in some other country would prefer you to say. (Note that they're perfectly content to use their traditional names for American places.) I think it's the embedded alpha-dog reflex: oops, somebody in Authority said "froggy," I'd better jump—and you should too! (See here for a LH rant on this topic, and here for an amusing tidbit about Madras/Chennai.)
posted by languagehat at 1:19 PM on May 2, 2007 [6 favorites]


"It strikes me as political..."

It is part political, but another driver is globalisation. And I suspect you'll see more of it as indigenous folks flex their muscles, and want their own cultural heritage & independence acknowledged. How many people do you run across that still call Iran "Persia", Thailand "Siam" or Zimbabwe "Rhodesia"?

Slightly off topic: at the bank I'm employed by here in London we do say say "Lisboa" or "Warszawa" and other oddities that don't roll off the palate as well as Lisbon or Warsaw. But I work in a very international, very multilingual environment and almost all of us delight in learning new & unusual words in strange languages.
posted by Mutant at 1:20 PM on May 2, 2007


indigenous folks flex their muscles, and want their own cultural heritage & independence acknowledged

But what the fuck does that have to do with how we speak English? How does it diminish the French (for example) that we say PA-ris instead of pa-REE, or the Germans that we write Germany instead of Deutschland? How does is the "cultural heritage & independence" of India furthered by English-speakers writing Chennai instead of Madras, especially since Madras is of Tamil origin and Chennai isn't? It's all political, and it's all bullshit. If we told them how to speak and write their languages, they'd laugh and/or yell at us; I don't see why we shouldn't do the same.
posted by languagehat at 1:28 PM on May 2, 2007


The really weird thing about Constantinople is that old Ottoman coins say Qunstantina--Constantinople.

So if the locals used to call it that, then what cultural authenticity are we going for here again?
posted by mrbugsentry at 1:46 PM on May 2, 2007


So if the locals used to call it that, then what cultural authenticity are we going for here again?

Well, the locals have been calling it something like Istanbul for over a millennium, which would make it pretty durn authentic.
posted by hangashore at 2:56 PM on May 2, 2007


The Peiping thing is something else too; whilst the capital of China in the Nationalist era was in Nanjing (or Nanking in old money, "southern capital"), Beijing 北京 ("northern capital") was known as what would be Beiping 北平 in pinyin. Clearer now? :D
One slight advantage of the newer system is that non-Chinese speakers are going to make a slighter better hash of saying where they're going on holiday in most cases, but certainly not all. Lost count of all the visitors who seem to think Cheyenne rather than Xi'an is where the Terracotta Army is, and you can see where the confusion arises.
posted by Abiezer at 3:00 PM on May 2, 2007


"It's all political, and it's all bullshit."

Well, I'd go along with at least partly political. But I'm not sure about labeling it "bullshit"; after all, locals have a right to change the names of their cities and countries as they see fit.

And having worked for Deutsche Bank for ten years (and in three countries), I know many Germans would be delighted if you called Germany "Deutscheland". Of course they're not rude enough to correct you if an American insists upon calling it Germany, but it all seems to come down to respect at some level or another.
posted by Mutant at 3:07 PM on May 2, 2007


I forgot to add that if I reckon it right, Beijing would have been Peich'ing in Wade-Giles romanisation.
posted by Abiezer at 3:10 PM on May 2, 2007


And searching to try to confirm that finds this LanguageLog post. (looks like I added an unnecessary apostrophe).
posted by Abiezer at 3:13 PM on May 2, 2007


One of the reasons for many of the changes is rejection of colonial history. Germans won't get on our case for calling it Germany, because we were never their colonial oppressor. The residents of Zimbabwe might reasonably have been pretty hacked off about being named after a British dude who came swanning in and buying up the land.
My understanding is that the Chinese name issues are more a correction of linguistic mistakes, than a rejection of the colonialists. In that case, it really strikes me as more a correction of the scholarship -- we used to translate it in X way, but now that we have better/more accurate/preferred Romanization systems, we'll translate it in Y way.
(On yet another slightly OT note, most of the people from Iran that I know actually refer to themselves as Persians. That's how they identify themselves ethnically, and they don't necessarily identify with the nation of Iran.)
posted by katemonster at 3:21 PM on May 2, 2007


Related questions. (I remember more, but they're hard to find in the search.)
posted by Robert Angelo at 3:24 PM on May 2, 2007


jbb7: I had been to the Wiki article. It explains way too much about why the Chinese did it. My question is, why did the US do it? Did other countries, too?

miss lynnster: don't worry about being late. The second link was worth it. If there was a button for Best Derail I would have clicked on it.

languagehat: great links. I should have forgotten about the Google and gone straight to LH-world. It sounds like I am in agreement with you that we're doing it to appease the (mainland) Chinese, but why? Money?

Before today, I thought there was some element of colonialism involved. But now I think it's more a Red vs Nationalist thing, and it's just one more step toward handing over Taiwan.
posted by MtDewd at 3:58 PM on May 2, 2007


Abiezer's link gives a pretty comprehensive answer.

MtDewd: It strikes me as political, but I don't know what the politics are, or why it happened when it did.

Kind of. The United States and China were hostile towards each other until 1972, with Nixon's visit to China.

Here's a thumbnail history of the political situation. It's useful to know because in a worst-case scenario, it could lead to war between the United States and China.
In 1911, the Republic of China (ROC) was established by Sun Yat-sen and the Nationalist (Kuomintang) party.

In 1949, the civil war between the Nationalists, then led by Chiang Kai-shek, and the Communists, led by Mao Tse-tung, ended with the defeat of the Nationalists and the retreat of the ROC to Taiwan, and the establishment of the People's Republic of China (PRC) by the Communists. (There were considerable repercussions in domestic politics in the US, with McCarthy claiming that the Communist victory in China was due to treason on the part of the Truman government.)

Thus as of 1949, there were two states which formally claimed sovereignty over the entirety of Chinese territory: the ROC, which only controlled Taiwan, and the PRC, which controlled mainland China but not Taiwan. Formally, this is still true.

It's a delicate situation, because the PRC still claims sovereignty over Taiwan. It's unclear what US policy is: would it go to war with the PRC to prevent reunification? Is an independent Taiwan really a vital interest of the US? (My answer would be no.) See this debate between Charles Freeman and Arthur Waldron.

In common usage, "China" refers to the PRC, and "Taiwan" refers to the ROC.
That said, the ending of the hostility between the US and the PRC in the early 1970s (the US also switched its diplomatic recognition from the ROC to the PRC in 1970, the UN admitted the PRC and ejected the ROC in 1971) wasn't the whole story.

How do you enforce such a thing?

Simple: China (meaning the PRC) publishes a lot of English-language materials, and starting in January 1979, they switched to using the pinyin romanization. New York Times, February 4, 1979:
The change, effective in the paper of March 5, follows the adoption of the system by the Chinese Government for news reports sent abroad. Since Jan. 1, the system has been consistently used in press dispatches and Government pronouncements originating in China and transmitted in English through the official New China News Agency and other publications. These now refer to Teng Hsiao-ping, the Deputy Prime Minister, as Deng Xiaoping, and to Mao Tse-tung as Mao Zedong.

The new system, known as Pinyin, for the Chinese word meaning "transcription," has been adopted in the United Nations and by the United States Board on Geographic Names, which determines the spelling of place names for Government use.

The Times delayed adoption to allow cross-referencing of names in its clipping, picture and map files and in its computerized Information Bank.
posted by russilwvong at 4:11 PM on May 2, 2007


That's a great point about publications russilwvong.
You may also enjoy the recent kerfuffle about changing the name of Peking University to the University of Beijing, based on some rather silly reasoning.
I think Tsinghua is hanging on to its older romanisation (rether than pinyin Qinghua); it seems the "colonial" name has cachet, though maybe they quite sensibly can't be arsed either way and don't want to shell out for the new letter-heads.
posted by Abiezer at 4:34 PM on May 2, 2007


>It's all political, and it's all bullshit. If we told them how to speak and write their languages, they'd laugh and/or yell at us; I don't see why we shouldn't do the same.

I spent two years in India, 1990-91 and 2000-2001. The first time I was there, everyone pronounced the name of the US as "umrika", the second time I was there they all said "a-may-reeka" and asked me why the hell we changed it on them. On my return to the states I lived with an Indian and an Argentinian, and the Argentinian was always challenging everyone else's use of the word 'America' where they referred to the US alone... he said it made it sound like we thought we were the only country that mattered on the whole dual continents that make up America. I was forced to admit that this wasn't just a mistake of language, but a piss-take of empire, and that we *do * think we're the only people on these continents, or perhaps the whole planet depending on how much credit the speaker is taking for the accidents of their birth. It may be partly political and it may be partly bullshit, but those both go both ways.

>it's absolutely your right to use traditional English forms, no matter what somebody in some other country would prefer you to say

Spoken like a true child of The Empire. We in the US, like most empires, feel we have the right to call anyone else whatever the hell we feel like calling them; it is a common aspect of empires that they take pride in their ignorance of other cultures, after all they are just (insert lower-valued descriptor here), and the only culture that *really* matters is that of the empire itself.

Those with the power to define have the power to control, and this isn't accidental, it's one of the pillars of imperial expansion. Did you notice that when Hussein was a Good Guy we called him 'Suh-dom', then we started to dislike him and he became 'Suh-damn', and then he became a fully-fledged Bad Guy (though he hadn't changed a bit) and we called him 'Sodom'? Do you think that was a coincidence?

When I travel I always spend a little time studying the culture and language of the places I intend to visit so I don't come off as a total tool. Sure we have the right to be ignorant assholes, but that doesn't make us any more appealing when we choose to exercise that right. But for now we can pretend we're open and magnanimous since there aren't really any other cultures out there that can define us (yet, but they're coming).

Even the British with their Hobson-Jobson admitted they were using the language as a tool of control, ridicule, and dismissal. I can't decide if it's more funny or sad that we in the US don't even admit to that, choosing instead to finger-point and spout homilies about our rights.
posted by foobario at 4:45 PM on May 2, 2007 [2 favorites]


Please limit comments to answers or help in finding an answer.

By the way, when I quoted the February 1979 New York Times article I forgot to give the title: Times Due To Revise Its Chinese Spelling.
posted by russilwvong at 5:05 PM on May 2, 2007


When I was in Istanbul last year, my impression was that the original settlement there was Greek. Constantinople was the name of the Roman city that followed it, named after Constantine. Constantinople fell in 1453 to the Ottomans, but when Attaturk began all of his reforms to create the new Turkish nationalism he changed the name to Istanbul in 1930. Apparently it means "land bridge" in ancient Persian, probably because the city of Istanbul is partly on the Asian continent and partly in Europe.

Okay, that's my mini geography report for the day.
posted by miss lynnster at 5:12 PM on May 2, 2007


russilwvong's nice thumbnail history omits the active conflict between the US and China in the Korean War (AKA "War to Resist America and Aid Korea") and China's involvement in the Vietnam War.

See also: Nixon's trip to China. Nixon told China that the US would not support Taiwan independence, which is still US policy. Wikipedia has a good page on Sino-American relations.
posted by kirkaracha at 5:13 PM on May 2, 2007


MtDewd: Is it something like- PRC uses Pinyin and Taiwan uses Wade-Giles and our government wants to suck up to PRC so we want everyone here to use Pinyin?

Just a small point... 'Beijing' isn't used only in the US. I've seen it in Canadian papers, heard it in on Canadian TV/Radio, and on other international English-language radio broadcasts (from the Netherlands, Sweden, BBC, etc). Even the Olympics and the UN refer to it as Beijing. So, if it's indeed political sucking-up at work, it's not just your government.

foobario: Spoken like a true child of The Empire. We in the US, like most empires, feel we have the right to call anyone else whatever the hell we feel like calling them...

I didn't read languagehat's "your right to use traditional English forms" as anything near ingrained Imperialism. More like the reaction you'd get in France if you were to go there, and tell them all to switch from saying Les États-Unis to a butchered "Zee Hewnited States". The French aren't being imperialists by saying Les États-Unis, they're just speaking French as French people are want to do.
posted by CKmtl at 5:35 PM on May 2, 2007


NBC decided to call the Turin Olympics the Torino Olympics because sports chairman Dick Ebersol liked how it sounded.
posted by GaelFC at 6:49 PM on May 2, 2007


If you were in Central Europe, you could wonder about things like Pressburg versus Pozsony versus Bratislava. They're all the same place.
posted by gimonca at 9:19 PM on May 2, 2007


Only thing about the name of "The United States" is that it's a very translatable name -- "united" and "states" both being actual words, not proper names. Not so with "Beijing" or "Lisbon" or even "Chicago". So I can't blame the French for saying Les États-Unis, but how would they say other American/English placenames?
posted by SuperNova at 10:36 PM on May 2, 2007


they're just speaking French as French people are want to do - CKmtl

Mate, I think the word you're thinking of is "wont"!
posted by PuGZ at 12:28 AM on May 3, 2007


The only place you'll see correct Wades-Giles in Taiwan today is the National Palace Museum. Everywhere else in Taiwan (media, street signs, etc.) you will see half-assed combination of incorrect Wades-Giles, Hanyu Pinyin, Tongyong Pinyin, MP2, and Yale romanization.
posted by alidarbac at 2:26 AM on May 3, 2007


I was recently fascinated by this topic, and found this: Wikipedia on Exonyms. It's a great article.

Personally, I have ALWAYS found it particularly strange that we do not, in general, call peoples and placenames by what the natives call it.

It works both ways, however! I'm annoyed that when I see a map of the United States that is in Spanish (I believe that the animated progress maps on United Airlines does this) and I see Nord Carolina. That's simply not the name of that state! (whenever this happens, I feel empathy for someone who says "Peking? WTF?!?"

One VERY interesting thing to note is that Google Maps takes a different approach to exonyms-- they generally don't use them! Go over to Japan-- all of the place names are in Japanese. And go to Europe-- most of the city names are native (Köln not Cologne, Torino not Turin, Genève not Geneva).
posted by gregvr at 4:17 AM on May 3, 2007 [1 favorite]


Wait a minute. languagehat--the consummate descriptivist--is railing against changes in the English language? Never thought I'd see that.

Oh, and for a data point closer to home (for those of us in North America, at least), the group of Native Americans which were the Chippewa in my grade school textbooks ~30 years ago are now the Ojibwa.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 8:43 AM on May 3, 2007


SuperNova: "The United States" is that it's a very translatable name ... So I can't blame the French for saying Les États-Unis, but how would they say other American/English placenames?

It is easily translatable, but it's still technically not the 'proper' name (what the locals call it). As far as less 'translatable' places... London - Londres, Scotland - L'Écosse, Wales - Le Pays de Galles. My point was just that there's not always Imperialism afoot when people want to call foreign places by the name used in their own language, and you'd probably be met with a fair deal of "Don't tell me how to speak French" if you tried to change it.

A lot of the not-so-easily translatable American and Canadian place names (Chicago, Quebec, etc) are actually romanizations of First Nations words to begin with. So there would be a double-layered mess there.

PuGZ: Mate, I think the word you're thinking of is "wont"!

Oops, so it is. I'd thought it was 'wont' at first, but it didn't look right. And a quick Googling came up with a lot of 'are want to be's.

posted by CKmtl at 8:58 AM on May 3, 2007


The residents of Zimbabwe might reasonably have been pretty hacked off about being named after a British dude who came swanning in and buying up the land.

Sure, and I'm perfectly happy with that change. It makes sense from every point of view.

Wait a minute. languagehat--the consummate descriptivist--is railing against changes in the English language? Never thought I'd see that.

You're missing my point. Changes people create themselves, in their own language = good. Changes forced on people by foreigners whose language it isn't = bad.

Spoken like a true child of The Empire.

Give me a fucking break, and keep your assumptions to yourself. I'm an anarchist: I don't even like my own allegedly democratic government, let alone Empires. I also don't like people telling me how to use my own language. Props to CKmtl for knowing what I meant!
posted by languagehat at 9:35 AM on May 3, 2007


You're missing my point. Changes people create themselves, in their own language = good. Changes forced on people by foreigners whose language it isn't = bad.

And you're missing mine. Lots of English speakers, myself included, call the city which we once used to call "Peking" "Beijing." This was not forced on me (nor, I presume, on any of the other English speakers, at least in countries where English is the predominant language), but just a change which I made semi-consciously, much as I might incorporate any other naturally occuring language change which happens into my personal usage.

Why make a distinction between changes in language which are encouraged--not forced--by a specific, identifiable, outside source, and those for which we cannot so readily ascertain the source of the change? Either is adopted by gradual consensus of the speakers of that language. Why oppose the change just because one of the pressures which leads to the change is obvious, when you so readily accept most, if not all, other changes in language?
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 10:11 AM on May 3, 2007


I'm perfectly happy to live in Nueva York, the greatest city in the entire Estados Unidos.
posted by the jam at 12:15 PM on May 3, 2007


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