What's in a name? More specifically, what's in the spelling of a place name? Should the Chinese capital be spelt Beijing or Peking?
In a survey jointly conducted by China Youth Daily and Sina.com, a vast majority - 81 percent - opposed the old spelling, with only 10.7 percent supporting it and the rest not caring one way or the other. Opponents of "Peking" hold the view that Chinese proper names should be spelt with the standard pinyin. They further elaborate that pandering to the old spelling demonstrates a lack of cultural confidence and subservience to the Western mindset.
For me, this argument reflects the simplistic thinking of some people, especially the young, who habitually flaunt their political correctness. Cultural matters do not fall simply into right or wrong. As in the jianti versus fanti debate, which I discussed in this column last week, it is often a tradeoff between two equally flawed choices.
Peking was a Wade-Giles spelling, which was formalized in 1906 by the Imperial Postal Joint-Session Conference; and the pinyin system, which converts it to Beijing, was formally accepted by the UN in 1979.
Love it or hate it, the old form has accumulated so much baggage that you cannot change everything in one fell swoop. For example, the standard name for China's national opera is still Peking Opera. Why not change it to Beijing Opera? I guess Peking Opera was already known throughout the world when the city itself took on the new spelling. Ditto for Peking roast duck and Peking University.
A place name is not like a chemical element. It has more functions than simply denoting a place. It has associations. Great writers may have written about it; great singers sung about it. When you adopt a new name or change the spelling, some of that association will inevitably be lost. Just imagine a company that has spent tens of billions to promote its brand, and then forgo that brand name for something else.
That said, I'm not in favor of changing Beijing back to Peking - for two reasons: Beijing is perfectly pronounceable in English and many other languages; also, Beijing has been in use for three decades and a return to the old spelling would cause more confusion.
However, I strongly support the idea that Guangzhou promotes the old spelling Canton. Unlike Beijing, Guangzhou is not exactly a household name in the West. As a matter of fact, Guangzhou officials are pondering ways to publicize the city through the Asian Games it will host soon. When the city gave up the old spelling, it threw its most valuable intangible property to the winds.
Its biggest trading event is known overseas as the Canton Fair; Cantonese food is as widespread as MacDonald's and KFC; people from Guangdong province are called Cantonese. Now, if you ask most Americans about Cantonese, they are more likely to associate the name with Hong Kong.
Standardization is important. But the purpose is to make life easier, not to rigidly apply it to everything regardless of circumstances. As good as pinyin is, it is still a rule with exceptions. For example, we have Shanxi and Shaanxi, which, should pinyin be used, would be spelt the same unless we put tone marks above the letter a. Harbin did not give way to Ha'erbin.
Then, there are those cities in ethnic minority regions. Of course, you often see airlines fly to "Lasa" and "Wulumuqi", but the correct forms are Lhasa and Urumqi. For those who want every place name to appear as if they were typing it in a computer, my advice is: Learn it! Variety in culture is not a bad thing.
(China Daily 03/29/2008 page4)