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From the series Cities of China

In my continuing series of posts about cities of China, I eventually had to land in Beijing, the city I consider my adopted Chinese hometown. Even though I lived in Zhenghou and Changchun during my years in China, I’m still a Beijinger (北京人) at heart, which is why this amazing time-lapse video of the city makes me want to jump on a plane and go “home!”

Obviously, there is a lot that I could write about Beijing, but I’d like to focus here on the name of the city. Many who visit, particularly those who remember the “old days” when it was known in the west as Peking, want to know when and why the name of the city was changed to Beijing.

The easy answer is that it changed in the 1970s by order of the Chinese government. The more complicated, and accurate response is that in Chinese it didn’t really change. Before the 1970s the name of the city in characters was 北京, and those characters are still the name of the city today. What changed in the 1970s was the official pronunciation of those two characters.

The character 北 means “north” or “northern. The character 京 means capital, so the two characters together mean “northern capital.” The problem lies in the pronunciation of those two characters. Since written Chinese is ideographic, two people who speak different dialects can look at one character and both will know the meaning even though they may pronounce them differently. This is the case with 北京.

In the dialect of northern China (around Beijing,) they are pronounced bei and jing. In Cantonese (the dialect of Guangdong province and Hong Kong), they are pronounced pe and king. The name of the city first came into western languages via contact with Chinese in the south, who pronounced the characters as pe-king.

Government edict notwithstanding, the name Peking can still be found in use. On its English documents, Beijing University still uses Peking University. And the city’s airport still uses the old code, PEK, for Peking. Then there’s the question of the city’s beloved roast duck. Is it Peking duck or Beijing duck?

The city has not always been named “northern capital,” but in fact has held multiple names over multiple dynasties.  During the Republican Era (1911-1949) the name of the city was 北平 (Beiping), which means “northern peace.” The reason for this was that after the revolution which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the Nationalists moved the nation’s capital to 南京 (Nanjing, but written as Nanking at the time), which means “southern capital.” With 北京no longer serving as the capital they took out the 京 (capital) and replaced it with 平 (peace).

During the Yuan Dynasty (presided over by the Mongols in the late 1200s), the city’s name was 大都 (Dadu) which means “great city” or “great metropolis.” And that forms a fun connection to my past—I was born in Pakistan and, at the time, my parents were living in a city called Dadu.

I guess it’s fitting that Beijing is my adopted home town!

And finally there is the matter of pronunciation. The “j” in Beijing is pronounced as a “j” in English (think Jingle Bells), not “jh” or “zh.” Oh how I cringe when I hear TV news readers mangle it.

If you’re headed there, here’s my list of 100 fun things to see and do in Beijing.

Image credit: Joann Pittman, via Flickr
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Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman

Joann Pittman is Vice President of Partnership and China Engagement and editor of ZGBriefs. Prior to joining ChinaSource, Joann spent 28 years working in China, as an English teacher, language student, program director, and cross-cultural trainer for organizations and businesses engaged in China. She has also taught Chinese at the University …View Full Bio

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