21.12.08

Chinese place names


So, is this Peking duck, Beijing duck, or Peiching duck?

This entry isn't strictly about outsourcing, but since much of what I talk about with my fellow outsourcing professionals is travel-related I thought this bit about place names in China was fair game. 

On my recent (first) business trip to China I was somewhat confused by the place names.  I had studied my guide books, but the names of cities  I saw on street signs and signs in the airports were all slightly different, depending on the context.  I presumed it was a post-colonial reversion to a more accurate phonetic interpretation of the place's traditional name, kind of like how Bombay became Mumbai.  Turns out I was close, but it's a bit more nuanced than that.

There are two competing conventions on how to render Mandarin Chinese into ASCII.  They are:
  • Pinyin: This is the official phonetic spelling guide for Chinese, as developed by the PRC in the 50's, and since adopted as "official" global standard for pronouncing and transcribing Mandarin.  Taiwan (The Republic of China) will adopt this standard in a few weeks, at which point we may presume many of their cities will become misspelled - overnite.  
  • The Wade-Giles System: This system predates Pinyin, and was developed by Thomas Francis Wade in the 1860's, then improved by Herbert Allen Giles in 1912.  Both these guys were British foreign service, so I was somewhat correct in my assumption that this spelling discrepancy was a hangover from the colonial era. 
There's a link here to a decent site that attempts to make sense of Chinese place names.  

In short Chengdu and Cheng-tu are the same city, as are Xian and Hsi An, as are Nanjing and Nanking.  In each case, the first name is the Pinyin spelling, and the second name is the Wade-Giles spelling.

Beijing, which is spelled "Peiching" in the Wade-Giles system, is still commonly referred to as Peking (and the airport code for the Beijing International Airport is still PEK).

And sadly, I did not have Peking duck on my trip.




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