Why Peking Becomes Beijing

AS of this edition, The Christian Science Monitor changes the spelling of some prominent Chinese names to conform with China's official romanization system. China adopted the phonetic Pinyin system domestically in 1958 to render Chinese words with the Roman alphabet, and extended its use to official overseas news dispatches Jan. 1, 1979. The Monitor, however, retained the original transliteration of a few Chinese names familiar to readers. Some place names, like Tibet, remain because their Pinyin names are so unrecognizable. But to accord with the growing use of Pinyin internationally, The Monitor today changes most of the remaining names.

For example, the place name Peking, which evolved in the 19th century, becomes Beijing, meaning ``northern capital.'' Similarly, the southern city of Canton becomes Guangzhou, and the World War II capital of Nanking becomes Nanjing.

The names of the late Communist Party Chairman Mao Tse-tung and the late Premier Chou En-lai, spelled in the once prevalent Wade-Giles romanization, are changed respectively to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai.

Along with the Pinyin, the Wade-Giles system is one of the three most widely used English methods for transliterating Chinese. It was designed around 1860 by Sir Thomas Wade, a professor of Chinese at Cambridge University, and was applied by Herbert Giles, another Cambridge scholar, in a basic Chinese-English dictionary.

While foreigners invented other forms of transliteration, Pinyin was devised by China's communist leadership as part of a sweeping language reform launched in the 1950s to increase literacy among the nation's vast peasant population.

Pinyin, which means ``spelling,'' was introduced in the early years of Chinese students' schooling to aid them in learning to pronounce difficult Chinese characters, or ideographs. In addition, China adopted a simplified and streamlined system for writing characters with fewer strokes, and replaced the scholarly language of the traditional elite with the vernacular.

The government's goal was to eliminate characters and replace them with the Pinyin alphabet, which has all 26 Roman letters. Chinese leaders have retreated from this in recent years, however, as it grows clear that Pinyin, while useful as supplemental script, is unable to adequately differentiate between the many homonyms present in the Chinese language.

Today, the most dynamic growth in the use of Pinyin is occurring overseas. It is increasingly used by foreign nations and has been adopted by the United States Board on Geographic Names. While initially causing great confusion among librarians and scholars, the spread of Pinyin may eventually remove a major stumbling block to the speedy handling of Sinological literature.

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