Chas Freeman on Why People Say 'Beizhing'

By James Fallows

For those joining us late: It should be easy for Westerners to say Beijing, but American announcers (especially) keep saying Beizhing. This doesn't "matter," but it's interesting, at least to me. Previous installments here, here, and here.

I've now heard from Chas Freeman, who has particular standing to speak on this topic. In 1972, when he was in his late 20s, he was principal U.S. interpreter for Richard Nixon on his trip to China. As he explains below, he also personally played a big part in the Peking / Beiping / Pei-p'ing / Beijing / Beizhing wars. He reports, with emphasis added:

Chaing.jpgBeijing, as you know, means "northern capital."  (In the Shanghai and Cantonese dialects of Chinese, it sounds something like Buck-king, which the British, who were notoriously bad at grasping foreign names, rendered as "Peking."  Remember, they were in the South before they were in the North.) 

Chiang Kai-shek [right], whose regime was centered in Nanjing (the "southern capital") could not, for political reasons, accept the "jing" in Beijing and its implication that Beijing was the "capital" of something or other.  He became all the more adamant when he retreated to Taipei and insisted that his offshore Republic of China was the true China, with a provisional capital in Taipei.

At the conclusion of the 1926 - 28 "northern expedition," Chiang proclaimed victory and renamed Beijng as "Beiping" ("northern peace").  In the Wade-Giles orthography that prevailed at the time, this was written "Pei-p'ing."  Westerners naturally pronounced that as "Pay Ping."  John Foster Dulles and others, having been influenced by the "China Lobby," (some of which understood the political subtleties of the Chinese language involved) adamantly enforced the use of Pei-p'ing as the name of the (bogus) capital of the (Soviet puppet) People's Republic of China on pain of political chastisement.  Saying "Peking" was career-threatening.

When I joined the Foreign Service in 1965, I was duly counseled to avoid the use of Peking and to say Pei-p'ing instead.  

This political background helps explain why, when (as Country Director for China) I was asked by the Board of Geographic Names right after "normalization" in 1979 what to do about the names of Chinese places, I decided that we should get rid of Wade-Giles, adopt the official Chinese spellings of place names in "pinyin," and leave the political history of English renderings of Chinese terminological battles behind us.  So Peking became Beijing.

I find if fascinating that people confuse the "j" in Beijing with a "zh" sound.  J and ZH are a consonant contrast that a lot of foreign speakers of Chinese get wrong.

Similarly, from an American now learning Mandarin, about the influence of regional Chinese accents:

My Chinese-American significant other has a Mandarin pronunciation closer to zhing than jing. She is from [a southern Chinese city, in Guangdong province]. They do not speak Cantonese but their own dialect which is closer to Taiwanese. Many overseas Chinese, especially in southeast Asia are Chaozhou-ese. Best known city in their area is Shantou, which uses to be known as Swatow, from their dialect.

I have noticed a southern accent in some of her Mandarin. I wonder if BeiZhing comes from asking the many southern Chinese in this country how it should be pronounced?

She also hates it when my teacher has me talking like a Beijing pirate!

On why the French are always with us:

I am partial to the All Foreign Languages Are French hypothesis, and here's why.

A long time friend from Hyderabad, India, is named Saroja.  Her name is pronounced just the way it looks using standard English phonetic pronunciation, which is to say the j is hard. When she is introduced to a new person, that person always wants to repeat her name to make sure that it was heard right.  Almost always the j comes back softened as a zh.  In general, no matter how many times people hear it with the hard j, they stick with the soft j.

 It's a foreign word; therefore, a French pronunciation is best.

From a Chinese-speaking American in China:

Enjoying the Beizhing discussion and wanted to add a personal anecdote: I often find myself deliberately, somewhat guiltily using the Francofied "zh" pronunciation when speaking of the old North Capital with non-Chinese speakers. I'm not exactly sure why, but suppose I am trying to avoid obnoxiously lording my Mandarin training over the unenlightened.

Another note (and perhaps contradicting my previous statement about not being obnoxious): the "j" sound in Beijing is certainly closer to "jingle bells" than it is to "beige"...but pronounced properly, it sounds more like "dzj" -- somewhat sharper than "j" and pronounced with the tip of the tongue in between your teeth.

Coming tomorrow, or so I plan: more on "junta" -- and on the fascinating entries in the "translate a book title" contest.

This article available online at:

http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/08/chas-freeman-on-why-people-say-beizhing/260724/