Beijing still relishes a taste for Peking

I was struck when visiting Dalian recently to find how often its name had changed in a relatively short time

I was struck when visiting Dalian recently to find how often its name had changed in a relatively short time. The Chinese port was founded in 1898 by the Russians as Dalny, a "faraway place", then, as it passed under Japanese, Soviet and eventually Chinese control, it changed to Darien, Luda and finally Dalian.

Name-changing has always been a feature of revolutions and political change. In Russia, Leningrad, Gorky, and Sverdlovsk have disappeared, replaced by St Petersburg, Nizhny Novgorod and Ekaterinburg. Ireland had its own round of name changing after independence, but on a smaller scale. Kingstown for example was renamed Dun Laoghaire.

The Chinese never went in for naming cities after emperors or communist dictators. There have no "Maograds". Urban nomenclature has usually been based on location. Beijing for example means simply "Northern Capital". Nanjing is "Southern Capital". The Chinese word for Tokyo is Dongjing, meaning "Eastern capital".

Many exotic-sounding Chinese placenames are made up of such commonplace words. Shandong means "East of the Mountain" and Shanxi "West of the Mountain". Henan signifies "South of the River" and Hebei "North of the River", and so on. The popular tourist destination of Xi'an, where the terracotta warriors stand guard, means "Peace and Security".


Beijing however must hold the world record for reinventing itself. It appeared first as Jicheng in 1045 BC. During the next 1,000 years it changed to Yandu, Yanjun, Youzhou, Zhuojun, Fanyangjun and Guangyangjun. In the Liao Dynasty period from 916 to 1125 it became Nanjing, then Yanjing, then Yanshanfu. Then the Jin Dynasty called it Zhongdu but succeeding emperors changed it back to Yanjing, then Zhongdu once more, before finally settling on Dadu in 1265. A century later it became Beiping, meaning "Northern Place of Stability", and finally in 1403, Beijing.

For a short period this century when the capital moved south, Beijing was renamed Beiping again, but after the People's Republic was founded in 1949 it was restored as the northern capital, or Beijing, once more.

Westerners have over the years given their own names to Chinese cities, such as Peking for Beijing, taking their pronunciation from Cantonese (Hong Kong) rather than Mandarin.

This changed in the 1950s when China - and the UN - officially adopted a romance version of written Chinese known as pinyin. Under this system the English-language spelling and pronunciation of several Chinese cities was changed to resemble native usage. Thus the capital became "Beijing" rather than Peking, "Canton" became Guang zhou, etc.

The new spellings are now used by academics, journalists and politicians in most of the Englishspeaking world. No one, for example, now uses the old English names of Teintsin and Sianfu for the Chinese cities of Tianjin and Xi'an.

Only in Britain is there still any lingering debate and it centres on one name - Peking. This was what the English called the city when they were masters of the China Sea. It has all sorts of historical resonances. ProPekingers ask, why change it?

Some cite practical reasons. The highly-respected China scholar, Jonathan Spence, continues to use Peking as a word "long familiar in the west and difficult to recognise in pinyin" (The Search for Modern China, 1989).

For other English-speakers (the ones who might argue their case in a letter to the editor signed "Outraged, Kingstown") the adoption of Beijing is rejected contemptuously, and wrongly, as a craven case of kow-towing to China's communist rulers.

Some other languages have not followed the new spellings, but for entirely different reasons. Russians for example continue to refer to Pekin, but then in Russian a black person is still a negr, the Russians never having seen any reason to debate issues of political or linguistic correctness in the English-speaking world.

The former Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, always used Peking, mainly, it appears, to rub the Chinese noses in it. Certainly it is a loaded term to the Chinese, who take offence when they hear anyone in the English "establishment" using the word. Recently, the London Times correspondent in China, James Pringle, was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times did not stop using Peking. It now uses Beijing.

"It's a pity," said Mr Pringle. "In English, Peking is a more aesthetic and a more attractive word, and more evocative. And I pointed out to them that they call our capital `Loon-doon' rather than London."

Other British newspapers have long since fallen into line, though the London Independent remains a Peking holdout. The clincher for the Times was probably its own Atlas, the bible of world nomenclature, which some time ago switched to Beijing.

The controversy can cause confusion to the unwary. The Times man told of meeting an American businessman on a train in China. During their conversation the visitor referred to Beijing while Mr Pringle spoke of Peking. Eventually the American paused, thought a moment, and said, "Hey, this Peking sounds a real interesting place. Is it far from Beijing?"

It's not, actually. And it's still the best place to get Peking Duck.