The Old Chinese Spellings Went the Way of the Dodo

Monitor readers who missed a Page 4 article on Jan. 23, 1989, may be in the dark about why the names of a host of Chinese cities, including the capital, Beijing, changed. The old name, Peking, as well as the names of many cities and some people officially changed on Jan. 1, 1979, when the Chinese government began using new spellings for all overseas news dispatches. Devised by the Communist Chinese government in the 1950s, the new spelling system, called Pinyin, replaced the older Wade-Giles system.

"The Pinyin system sounds a lot more natural to the Chinese ear," says Juan Valds, project manager at National Geographic Maps. He also speaks of the imperialistic undertones of the British Wade-Giles system.

While the National Geographic and several other organizations quickly made the change to Pinyin, the Monitor resisted the move for more than a decade out of a concern for readers.

Dave Thomas, "style" editor during the switch, says jumping to new forms before they've taken hold can leave readers puzzled. The change was made when editors were sure enough that Pinyin would be a lasting, widely recognized form.

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