Monday, November 15, 2010

Why it is Peking and not Beijing

[As at January 2011, this web site cannot be viewed from within China.]

Lord Carrington explained it most clearly when he said that English speakers do not call Moscow Mockba.

I see two fundamental misunderstandings on names and languages.

First, English speakers do not need the permission of the CCP to decide how to name the capital of China in English. English speakers do not seek Italy's permission when they call Roma Rome. The list goes on. Similarly, Britain does not, and cannot, insist that the Chinese do not call London 伦敦 but London. Britain cannot object the French from calling that same place Londres. President Obama cannot command that the Chinese call him 奥峇马 instead of 奥巴马. In summary, if users of a language decide to name something X, no one else from another language can come and say it must be Y instead.

Second, the capital of China in Chinese is 北京, not Beijing. This second point may be a bit subtle.  "Beijing" is 100% not a Chinese word. Chinese is not written using the letters of the English or Latin alphabet. Chinese is written using pictographs, eg 北京.  The word "Beijing" is as Chinese as "Лондон" (London in Russian) is English.

There is nothing offensive or ominous about calling the capital of China Peking in English. There are no western hegemonic overtones or Chinese humiliation implied when we use the word Peking.  [Jan 2, 2011 update: mind you I just returned from an absorbing visit to Yuan Ming Yuan]  Just like when the Chinese call London 伦敦 in their language, there is no connotation China might have overrun England.  On the other hand, using Beijing instead of Peking in English unequivocally acknowledges a total capitulation to the CCP!  I guess big cash can do wonderful things.  If this goes on, soon we will have to use Zhong-guo instead of China. And from 2019, many documents will have to be updated, such as "We the People of Mei Guo, in Order to form ..."

Coming back to the word "Beijing", it is merely the Hanyu Pinyin phonetic spelling of 北京, when pronounced in Chinese, just like "lʌndən" is the IPA phonetic spelling of London, when pronounced in English.  We should leave these as they are.

Long live Peking!  北京万岁!