The March of Pinyin English
By Graham Earnshaw in Peking
September 2, 1980
For many people, China’s capital is now called Beijing, its former leader Mao Zedong and its largest river the Changjiang.
The Chinese sprang these new spellings for Peking, Mao Tse-tung and the Yangtze River on an unsuspecting world last year as part of their plan to standardise the way Chinese names are spelt overseas.
They have had varying success with their new spelling system, known as Pinyin.
Peking is now spelt Beijing by many newspapers and magazines, but the late Chairman has generally kept his old spelling, and the Yangtze is still called the Yangtze by just about everyone except the Chinese themselves.
Overall, however, Pinyin has proved over the past 18 months to be more than a match for the old Romanization system used to render Chinese characters into European languages, including the Wade-Giles system in English.
Noting the trend, The Daily Telegraph has decided gradually to introduce Pinyin spelling for Chinese names. But in order not to confuse readers, familiar names and places in China will still be spelt in the old way, with new names being rendered in Pinyin as they come along.
The Chinese Communist Party vice-chairman Teng Hsiao-ping will therefore stay as he is for the foreseeable future rather than changing to Pinyin-ised Deng Xiaoping.
But the name of China’s soon-to-be-appointed Prime Minister will be spelt according to the Pinyin system??Zhao Ziyang.
Other new names will also be Pinyin-ised as they appear in the Chinese leadership.
To people used to the old Wade-Giles system, Chinese names spelt according to Pinyin look a bit strange at first, basically because of the letters Z, Q, C and X, which are used with pronunciations different from those in English. Here is a quick guide:
X sounds like an ordinary S, while Q sounds like CH. C sounds like a hard TS, while Z is a softer DZ sound. ZH sounds like an English J.
Premier Zhao Ziyang’s name, therefore, sounds something like Jow Dzuh Yang.
Pinyin is not a perfect system for spelling out Chinese, but neither are the systems it is replacing. Anyway, we are going to learn to live with it.
Author’s note: The Chinese effort to force Pinyin spelling on the world was fundamentally cultural imperialism. I used to say that I would call Peking “Peking” until the day the French started calling London “London”. What made the difference on that word was the 1989 upheavals and June 4??the tidal wave of reporting out of the Chinese capital fundamentally changed its name around the world from Peking to Beijing. At the start if the Pinyin push in 1979 / 1980, the official English media – which means Xinhua News Agency’s English service, The Peking Review, and that wonderful pictographical magazine which by memory was called China Self-Destructs??something like that??rendered Hong Kong as Xianggang, Tibet as Xizang, and the Yangtze as Changjiang. Luckily, these names did not stick. The pinyinisation of Mao Tse-tung’s name cleared up significant misunderstandings. I once heard an American pronounce his name as May-o-tit-see-tongue. On the other hand, Zhao Ziyang’s name was unpronounceable to many foreigners, and from a global PR name recognition and pronouncability perspective, ditching him in favour of Li Peng made total sense.
The “X” in the new system caused the most confusion. There was a Fuxing Hotel in Beijing in the 1980s that had to change its name due to the embarrassment the name was causing for visiting American tourists.
Editor’s note For everything you ever wanted to know about Pinyin, see the excellent Pinyin.info.