The Grammarphobia Blog

Chinese chestnuts

Q: I’m a WNYC listener out here on the prairie plains of Missouri. As an American-born Chinese who speaks Mandarin, I’d like to comment on the “Peking”-vs.-“Beijing” question that came up during your last appearance on the the Leonard Lopate Show. “Peking” is derived from the Cantonese pronunciation of the city. In Mandarin, it’s “Bei (north) Jing (capital).” If you recall, Britain’s 19th-century foray into China was through Canton, which is why many old English versions of Chinese place names are of Cantonese origin.

A: Thanks for your comments. Interestingly, the Mandarin pronunciation of the Chinese capital’s name used to be similar to the Cantonese pronunciation, according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

In fact, from what I’ve read, Cantonese has preserved many sounds from older versions of Chinese that modern Mandarin has lost or modified. That may help help explain the “Peking”-vs.-“Beijing” question.

In Middle Chinese (the language spoken in the 6th to 9th centuries) and Old Mandarin (spoken in the 14th century), the consonant sound beginning the second part of the city’s name had a “k” sound, according to the OED.

This “k” pronunciation was still prevalent in the 16th century when Jesuit missionaries began arriving in China and communicating the name of the city to the West, according to the dictionary.

The name first appeared in English in the early 17th century as “Paquin” and “Pequin.” The spellings “Pekin” and “Peking” showed up later in the 17th century.

The first published reference in the OED for “Beijing” as the Chinese capital is from a 1979 Time magazine article about the Chinese government’s decision to change the way it transliterated Chinese names into English:

“The changeover was started by Peking (um, er, Beijing) on Jan. 1, when the government of Zhongguo (otherwise known as China) decreed that in all of its foreign-language publications Pinyin would replace the traditional Wade-Giles system of romanization.”

Nowadays, “Beijing” is the usual English name for the Chinese capital, while “Peking” primarily survives in phrases like “Peking duck” and “Peking man.” The breed of dog once referred to as “Peking spaniel,” though, is now a “Pekinese.”

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