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.”