From Peking to Beijing: A Long and Bumpy Trip

Not long ago I went out to dinner with some friends who had just recently arrived in China.  Since this was their first time in Beijing, we naturally went for the city’s signature dish at Quanjude.  Just as any religious pilgrimage is accompanied by certain obligatory rituals and prayers, so too does the Beijing visitor’s requisite eating of kaoya demand its own incantation.

In our case, it came right when we walked through the front door, when my friend wondered aloud “Are you supposed to call it ’Peking duck’ or ‘Beijing duck?’”  The rest of us earnestly performed the second ritual of shrugging our shoulders, unable to answer.  Undaunted, our friend continued: “And how come they changed the city’s name in the first place?”

This is a question I’m used to hearing.  I’ve heard it when I visited Peking University, when I went to see a performance of Peking Opera, or in short did just about anything with the word “Peking” in it.  And it’s a question that had loitered around the corners of my own mind for years, nudging me every so often until at last I went out in search of the answer.

The short answer — or the one given on Wikipedia, in any case – is that in Chinese, the city’s name has always been pronounced “Beijing,” but early Western visitors to China (specifically, 17th century French missionaries) rendered it into the Roman alphabet as “Peking.”  When the PRC introduced the Pinyin system in 1958, the new spelling “Beijing” was adopted to more accurately reflect the name’s pronunciation.

But while Pinyin was universally adopted throughout mainland China, the rest of the world continued to use preexisting systems for transliterating Chinese names into their own alphabets.  In English-speaking countries, this was the Wade-Giles method, named after its 19th century British co-creators.  Their intransigence was not simply due, as is commonly assumed, to an anti-communist refusal to play by “Red China’s” rules.  Indeed, not even the Soviet Union adopted Pinyin, but continued to refer to China’s capital as Peking and its leader as Mao Tse-tung.

Rather, the West simply saw no need to make such a change when the old systems of transliteration had worked so well.  Instead of protesting against this obstinacy, China continued to use these Western systems rather than Pinyin in materials issued to a foreign audience.  For example, the most important English-language periodical printed by the Chinese government – one of the only conduits between the PRC and the outside world during China’s strictest periods of isolation – was a magazine titled the Peking Review.

Throughout the 1950s and 60s Pinyin was widely used within China as a tool for promoting literacy.  But with the start of the Cultural Revolution, Pinyin’s strongest advocates in the government and academia were persecuted, and the system itself was condemned and abandoned.  Pinyin was quick to reappear amidst the post-Mao reforms, however, and was hailed as a vital tool of the new economic modernization campaign launched by Deng Xiaoping.  And so on January 1, 1979, China began to use Pinyin in all of its foreign language publications, a change that was announced in the newly-renamed Beijing Review.

International reactions were mixed.  In the United States, press agencies and publishers debated whether or not to follow China’s lead.  The New York Times was one of the first major newspapers to make the switch to Pinyin.  A Times editorial declared that “The new system of transliteration is more logical than the old Wade-Giles system, which was a godsend to linguistic snobs.  They knew that Jenmin Jih Pao (People’s Daily) was really pronounced Renmin Ribao; now the rest of us will know, too.”  NBC news anchor John Chancellor similarly promised viewers that Pinyin “will make us all sound like old China hands.”

But not everyone agreed.  Many veteran China-watchers bemoaned the confusing preponderance of Z’s, Q’s, and X’s introduced by Pinyin, and laughed at the absurdity of calling Hong Kong “Xianggang” or Tibet “Xizang.”  And while the New York Times saw the rise of Pinyin as the end of “linguistic snobbery,”    the Washington Post’s Hong Kong correspondent Jay Matthews saw the opposite, a system unintelligible to all but “those few who have been initiated into the mysteries of the new system.”

But in the end, they all came to the same decision.  By March 1979, Pinyin had been almost universally adopted.  But there were some very important exceptions.  In almost every instance of a switch, China’s capital remained Peking.  A common explanation for this decision was that “Peking” was essentially an English-language form of “Beijing,” much the same as European cities like Muenchen and Roma were called Munich and Rome. The Chicago Tribune was more blunt, declaring that “it’s already too late to change” and that the name Peking had “become so ingrained in our usage that we can’t get used to [a] new one.”

This continued to be the state of affairs for the next several years.  But on November 26, 1986, the New York Times announced that it would now stop using the name Peking, since “through widening contacts between China and the West, ‘Beijing’ has now become equally familiar.”  By 1987, every major newspaper and news magazine in the US had followed suit.  The change came a bit more slowly in Britain.  The Guardian didn’t change until December 1988, and the BBC continued to broadcast reports datelined Peking throughout the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.

When the Chinese government adopted Pinyin for use abroad in 1979, one of the main reasons given was that it would standardize spellings across different languages.  But over thirty years on, this goal is as distant as ever.  While almost everyone in the English-speaking world now refers to China’s capital as Beijing, the city remains “Peking” in German; “Pekin” in French, Spanish, and Russian; and “Pechino” in Italian.  And as frequent travelers know, the thousands of suitcases and bags arriving from every corner of the world at Beijing Capital International Airport continue to be tagged with the three letters “PEK.”


Talk on From Peking to Beijing: A Long and Bumpy Trip

  1. There’s a simple answer. Peking is the old Wade-Giles form of romanising Chinese, used from the 1850’s to 1949. “Beijing” is the pinyin spelling adopted by Mao to clean the language up. There, that didn’t require any wiki cut and paste did it? Hope the duck tasted better than your language theory.

  2. A good overview, but I’d also like to point out that the persistence of names like Peking, Chungking and Amoy can also be linked to Hong Kong, as these names are much closer to their Cantonese pronunciations. HK and Guangdong in general was Europe’s main contact with China and it’s perfectly understandable that we’d take the Cantonese name as being the one to use, rather than the Mandarin one.
    The guilt that people feel about saying “Peking” these days is a purely Anglophonic deal. As it isn’t pronounced “Beijing” in Hokkien or Shanghainese, why should it be pronounced that way in English? We don’t call Germany “Deutchland” or Venice “Venezia”, but since English started to be a global language there has been this shift to using local “authentic” names.

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  4. Another similar example is Seoul, the capital of South Korea changed its Chinese name in 2005.

    I once inquired the price of domain “”, after counting the 0s appeared in their asking price, I reserved “” instead.

    Despite the confusion, the name of Peking University won’t change :-)

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  6. I agree with James.
    “Pek-ing” is how it sounds in Cantonese.

    And “Hong Kong” is near enough how you pronounce “Hong Kong” in Cantonese.
    (maybe it should be spelt “Heng”)

  7. This may be simpler than all that. Peking, first off, has p instead of b because /b/ doesn’t properly exist in Mandarin. There are no voiced plosive initials. so the B in Beijing is actually /p/ without the puff of air that it has in English “peach”.

    As for the k->j change, that was a language-wide phonetic change that happened in Northern Chinese a century or two ago. You’ll find this in company names and historical names of cities throughout the country. In other languages like Wu or Min, much of these are still k sounds. Jia, house/family, in Wu can be “ga”. Carrefour for example is “kalefu” for many Wu speakers, and Korean words of Chinese origin have this g/k sound for what is often j in the Mandarin equivalent.

    Peking University is a legacy issue, so as The China Times said, it’s not going to change.

    Seoul didn’t exactly change the Chinese name in 2005. The word “seoul” unlike many nouns in Korean had no hanzi equivalent. All they did in 2005 was adopt the Chinese name as the official hanzi/hanja. The old Chinese name, Hancheng/Hanseong, was dropped in Korean quite some time ago. It now only appears the way Yanjing or Yanling do for Beijing and Nanjing respectively. Interestingly, a number of place names in Korea which are native Korean words do have hanzi names, but only as recent adoptions and not in any way related to the actual meaning of the name.

  8. I have to agree with other posters on here re: Cantonese. For decades, most of what was known about China came from Guangdong/Hong Kong, which is still mostly the case today (in terms of Cantonese communities overseas). Peking, Nanking, Chungking (Chongqing) etc are almost identical to how they sound in Cantonese and how these cities would have been referred to previously. I can only assume that based on the Cantonese sounds of these cities, Wade-Giles was developed (although I have no proof of this, it’s a theory). It’s only recently that Mandarin pronunciations and their Pinyin spelling counterparts have overtaken the Cantonese ones overseas.

  9. I think the similarity in to the Cantonese pronunciation is more likely the preservation of the previous /k/ sound in Qing-era language, and not the source of the peking pronunciation. Modern Mandarin lost the /k/ in favour of /j/, as is also evidenced by the Korean pronunciation of Beijing (복경 buk-kyeong) in addition to being found in Cantonese et al. Not to slam Cantonese in any way; plenty of contributions have been made to English from Cantonese and Hokkien speakers. I just think in the case of Peking there’s a much simpler (and historically verifiable) explanation.

    • Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying it can’t be traced to Wade-Giles, but the fact that most of the Chinese people westerners have come across (until the last twenty years or so) also called it ‘Peking’ must have helped it stick. Xiamen is still known as Amoy to many people outside China, which has nothing to do with Wade-Giles, and Guangzhou/Canton would have been “Kuang-chou” if WG had been the universal standard.

    • @Gabriel: Pinyin sucks big time!

      Kellen is right, Mandarin used to have the /k/ few centuries ago and it’s switched to /j/. Some other examples are Nanking and Keelung in Taiwan. The first Westerners heard a /k/ and hence kept it in the Romanization. Btw, maybe we could change Beijing back to Beiping and we won’t have the problem debated in the article ;-)

  10. I know this thread is old, but you’re all wrong. At least those of you tracing “Peking”, “Nanking” “Chungking”, etc. to Wade-Giles. Wade-Giles for “Bei” is “Pei”, so Peking obvs doesn’t come from Wade-Giles. The “k for j” thing isn’t in Wade-Giles either. I don’t know definitively, but the “southern” argument seems persuasive. During the era these names were being formalized for Westerners, most of the West’s contacts with China came from the South, so it makes sense that we would have adopted Cantonese names. But it ain’t Wade-Giles.

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