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Peeking Into Beijing's Past

2016-03-14 09:56:49Share:

  The Chinese government has the tendency to get a tad irritated when non-Chinese speakers use the now-incorrect word “Peking” for their capital city of Beijing.


Peeking Into Beijing's Past


  This high level of disapproval often irks English speakers, who simply do not understand what the big difference is. An often cited example of the supposed validity of the use of “Peking” instead of “Beijing” actually comes from China’s premier university. Specifically, its name: Peking University. In Chinese, Peking University is called Běijīng Dàxué (北京大学), or sometimes simply BěiDà (北大)—the Chinese version of an acronym. The name literally translates to “Beijing University”, despite the university still using the original English name.


  The reasoning for this confusion is actually simpler than it might seem. The first system of romanization Mandarin Chinese came from two British scholars, Sir Thomas Wade and Herbert Allen Giles. The result of their combined effort of romanticizing the Chinese language was known as the Wade-Giles system, which quickly become the de-facto standard for romanization in the 20th century.


  The Wade-Giles romanization system is also generally accepted to be extremely confusing, particularly when compared to the recent system of Pinyin. Admittedly, any transliteration from Mandarin Chinese to a romantic language is going to cause problems because of the nonstandard speech sounds Mandarin possesses. The exact Wade-Giles and Pinyin comparative differences are overall unimportant for the purposes here; however, “Peking” was the Wade-Giles romanization transliteration while “Beijing” is the Pinyin romanization transliteration. So, the Chinese characters never changed, but the romanization transliteration of the characters did.


  After the establishment of the People’s Republic of China in 1949, the Chinese government officially adopted the Pinyin transliteration system, which is when the name “Beijing” officially began to be used. However, many Western countries continued to use the Wade-Giles transliteration long after that. The New York Times continued to use the name “Peking” all the way until 1986.


  It was not until the 1980s when China began to enforce the official name “Beijing” to be used on flights, sea routes, and documents. The romanization of “Nanking” held out even longer, only switching over to the now-commonly used Pinyin transliteration “Nanjing” in 1990.


  There have been many names, both countries and cities, that have been difficult to get English-speakers to stop saying in favor of a new, updated name. A prime example here is “Burma” compared to “Myanmar”. The government of Myanmar, despite their best efforts, has been unsuccessful in getting English speakers to stop called the country Burma, despite the fact that that is not longer the name of the country (part of the issue stemming from disagreements between domestic factions who repudiated the ruling military junta’s name change). Thailand also had the same issue, particularly because it changed its name to and from “Siam” more than once. Thailand was called Siam until 1939, but switched back to Siam again from Thailand in 1945 throughout 1949. It took a few years after the final change for “Thailand” to become the commonly-accepted name.


  Independence from colonization historically seems to provide a clean break to quickly let a new name become the defacto name, but Iran is a particularly interesting case. While never actually a colony, Iran did see its fair share of manipulation and invasion by foreign powers, namely Great Britain and Russia. Iran has been “Iran” to its people for quite some time. However, sometimes foreigners will refer to places by a name locals would never call it, finding it rare or unfamiliar, as a way to reflect the relative foreign power. Notably, this can be seen in the use of “Persia” by Westerners for the area known as “Iran” since the time of the Ancient Greeks. “Iran” did not become more commonly used name over “Persia” until 1963.


  So, back to the original question: why does the Chinese government get miffed when people call Beijing by its old name? Well, because “Peking” just is not its name anymore (and this romanization sounds much closer to the Chinese anyway). Peking is to Beijing what Persia is to Iran: outdated. Countries and language and not stagnant; they are constantly changing and adjusting.


  Wanting their cities to be called by the correct names is not an attempt for China topersonally victimize a single country, language, or person, despite apparent beliefs. The name of the city is “Beijing”, and they would simply like it to be referred to as such.

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