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Name-dropping is the order of the day

By Zhang Yi | China Daily | Updated: 2016-04-05 08:11

The government is moving to outlaw 'exotic' names given to places, commercial buildings and residential compounds in a bid to protect and reaffirm traditional Chinese values. Zhang Yi reports.

Would you like to start your day with coffee and croissants in Provence, before heading to Venice to grab a pizza for lunch and following it up with a trip to Manhattan to take in a show?

If the answer is "yes", you can achieve all three ambitions by taking an "international tour" of Zhengzhou, the capital of Central China's Henan province.

"Provence" and "Venice" are modern residential buildings in the city, while "Manhattan" is a commercial square, which includes a financial center and a medical facility, built about 10 years ago and named after the famous New York borough.

However, you will have to act quickly if you want to take a photo of any of these foreign names in situ because the authorities have decided to ban the use of place names inspired by locations overseas, and have ordered the removal of the imported monikers by the end of June next year.

To curb the growing use of foreign names, Li Liguo, the minister for civil affairs, has ordered governments at all levels to standardize place names and protect long-standing geographical or historical names.

Reflecting history

On March 22, Li told a meeting to regulate place names that "over-the-top, West-worshiping, weird and duplicative" names must be eradicated from all locations, including residential compounds and large buildings, and should be replaced with names that better reflect China's culture, history and traditions.

"Some cities have multiple 'Manhattan' or 'Venice' roads. It's not only an inconvenience for travelers, but also erodes the sense of home," Li said, adding that to preserve traditional Chinese culture, the protection of age-old place names must be stepped up and nonregulation names must be removed.

Certain types of names will be targeted, he added, including those that damage sovereignty and national dignity, those at odds with core socialist values and conventional morality, and names that prompt widespread public complaints.

Li made his comments at a meeting to review the State Council's ongoing survey of names, which was launched in 2014 and is expected to be completed in 2018.

The four-year survey is the second national-level investigation into place names since the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, and follows a study conducted from 1979 to 1986.

According to a 2014 survey conducted by the Ministry of Civil Affairs, the last 30 years have seen changes to the names of more than 60,000 townships across the country. Statistics provided by the Ministry of Civil Affairs in 2013 show that 40 percent of the names of Beijing's hutong, the network of alleys that once crisscrossed the city, were changed between 1980 and 2003.

The meeting triggered a nationwide discussion about whether the government should impose a ban on naming places after famous locations overseas, and about the significance of protecting names with historical meanings.

The most heated debate centered around the practice of naming residential compounds after venues in developed countries, which has been widely adopted by real estate developers for commercial purposes.

Western styles

The issue reflects the trend of imitating Western-style architecture and the pursuit of managed landscapes for living environments that accompanied China's urbanization boom. In recent years, high-end residential complexes constructed in European and other architectural styles have multiplied in cities and suburbs across the country.

For example, "Thames Town" in Shanghai is an English-themed residential compound about 30 kilometers from the city's downtown. Built in 2005 and designed by Atkins, a global engineering consultancy headquartered in the United Kingdom, the luxury residential area is home to accurate replicas of Tudor frontages, cobbled streets and Edwardian townhouses.

The compound, in the city's Songjiang district, was part of a project by the Shanghai municipal government to re-house 500,000 people in nine new satellite towns, each built in a different style. Other Western-themed developments have also been built in Shanghai's suburbs, including "Holland Town" and others in the styles of Italian, Canadian and Scandinavian architecture.

Although the practice may seem harmless, critics argue that some names are ridiculously exaggerated and may even be designed to deceive home buyers. In Zhengzhou, for example, "Vienna Woods" consists of just a couple of trees and "Venice Watertown" is a small pond.

Commentators on social media platforms are divided over the issue. Some have pointed out that residential buildings are part of geographical locations, so the names of the buildings should adhere to national standards, while others believe that real estate companies should be allowed to call the buildings they have developed by whatever name they choose.

"The naming of residential buildings should be in line with the rules set forth by the State Council, as well as bylaws issued by the Ministry of Civil Affairs," said Liu Lian'an, a professor at the China Institute of Toponymy (the study of place names).

The Regulation on Geographical Names, published by the State Council and enacted in 1986, and subsequent bylaws issued in 1996 stipulate that residential compounds, individual buildings and apartment units are subject to the rules outlined in the guidelines.

A clause in the bylaws states that "names of foreign persons and foreign geographical features are not allowed to be used for geographical names in China".

According to Liu, some long-standing place names have disappeared completely because the ancient buildings after which they were named have either been knocked down or were damaged beyond repair. Many were also changed after the original buildings were replaced by new ones and the locations were renamed after the new constructions.

He added that the unusual names given to places and buildings reflect an appreciation of foreign culture and an admiration of foreign lifestyles, which indicates a lack of confidence in traditional Chinese culture. The pursuit of commercial benefits via the use of exotic names has also resulted in people associating some public places with foreign cultures.

That view was echoed by Wu Yutian, a 35-year-old Zhengzhou resident: "In China, a country with more than 5,000 years of civilization, a name of a geographical feature usually carries a significant historical meaning. For example, Erqi Tower, in the center of Erqi square in the downtown, was built to honor 27 workers who died in a general strike in 1923. Now, the tower is dwarfed by skyscrapers, but I don't think the names of the tower and the square should be changed to fit the surrounding new buildings because the story behind the name would probably be unknown to future generations."

One resident, who preferred not to be named, said: "Zhengzhou is a major birthplace of ancient Chinese culture, and many tourists from home and abroad come here to look at relics dating back for millennia. The value of these relics can be compared with the Terracotta Warriors in Xi'an. Local governments have an obligation to protect existing names of geographical features, and protect the city's history and culture."

Liu, from the Institute of Toponymy, explained the approval procedure. He said a construction plan containing the proposed names of buildings is usually submitted to a civic planning committee, while in some places local civil affairs departments, which are responsible for overseeing place names, are not involved, but individual officers are often asked for their personal opinions.

The March meeting on standardizing place names also debated the renaming of localities, which are often associated with geographical features or have an approximate cultural meaning. For example, Beijing literally means "North Capital", while Shanghai can be translated as "the place to set out to sea".

Li, the minister, stressed that geographical names carry a country's culture, history and national spirit. "We must put an end to the capricious renaming of geographical locations and prevent the disappearance of names with historical and cultural meanings," he said.

The recent renaming of a road in Zhengzhou proved so controversial that it attracted the attention of the public nationwide. The local government changed the name of Zhacheng Road to Ping'an Road, but the move was so unpopular that in September, five residents filed a lawsuit against the government to reverse the decision.

The city government claimed that the new name, which literally translates as "Peace Road", will be more easily recognizable to people from other areas, and that the change was supported by the results of a poll conducted among local residents.

According to one of the plaintiffs, Zhu Guangyi, whose family has lived in the city for at least 430 years, "Zhacheng" was the name of a country that existed in the area about 3,500 years ago.

At the court hearing in February, the 60-something said the government's move violated the State Council's regulations on changes to the names of geographical locations and also the guideline that states that names with significant historical meanings should be protected. The court has not yet announced a ruling on the case.

Commercial interests

The case in Zhengzhou is not an isolated one, though, and in recent years many cultural and place names have been changed for reasons of commercial interest, not capriciousness.

One well-known example is the renaming of Zhongdian, a county in Yunnan province. In 2001, the county whose original name meant "Central Land" decided to rename itself Xianggelila, or Shangri-La, after the fictional paradise in James Hilton's 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The move has been justified by a resultant boom in the local tourist industry.

Moreover, about 30 years ago, the Huizhou region of Anhui province was renamed Huangshan city, or "Yellow Mountain City", partly because of changes at the administrative level. The move was widely debated by residents, some of whom were in favor while others were opposed.

Despite the objections, both Shangri-La and Huangshan have completed the required administrative procedures and been approved by the State Council.

Inspectors working on the national survey of place names will check all names and related information, decide on official names for places usually referred to by a range of local titles and erect the appropriate signs.

The national database of place names will be updated to include new information about locations, and an archive of geographical features that will include names, photos, the history of the name, and all documents relating to names, should be completed by the end of June 2018.

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Name-dropping is the order of the day

People take photos in the Florentia Village outlet in Tianjin. The shopping center was built to reflect the style of the Renaissance. Provided to China Daily


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