That Peking/Beijing thing I mentioned…

So yesterday I mentioned finding an article explaining how Peking became Beijing. At the time, I’d only downloaded it (bloody pdf) and hadn’t read it. Well, I read it last night, and it had the bullshit detecters zinging.

Now, I should make clear that I am no expert on these matters. But I am interested and I ain’t stupid. Well, not very stupid. Anyway, I read it through and some things struck me as being reasonable, others as not.

The article is titled Backhill/Peking/Beijing (if that link doesn’t work, go to the Sino-Platonic Papers and look under March 2007), and is by Bosat Man. I just googled him, and the only two relevant links on the first page are to this very article. Then there’s a couple of pages about Buddhism in which the words “bosat” and “man” appear separately and not as names, then the rest of the results seem to be all in Danish, which is not a good sign, so I click on “English only”, and…. it makes absolutely no difference. I suppose I could work a little harder to track down some information about this person, but there’s a big pot of coffee sitting next to me begging to be poured into a mug and I’m just a blogger, so bugger it, on to the article.

The article begins with:

The three main contributing factors to the discrepancy between Peking and Beijing are: 1. a plethora of romanisations, 2. a welter of local pronunciations, and 3. a phonological change over time.

So far so good. He then spends a lot of time discussing how the plethora of romanisations and the existence of only one script for the Sinitic languages (i.e. the characters, the ‘Sinitic languages’ being what are more commonly referred to as the Chinese dialects) leads to much confusion. A lot of this is irritating, particularly his insistence on using Wade-Giles. The most irritating bit is his insistence on calling the characters ‘tetragraphs’. There’s nothing wrong with the word, except that ‘characters’ is perfectly adequate and describes the exact same thing. He also points out that most of the ‘dialects’ (he says ‘topolects’ is a better translation for 方言. I can’t say I disagree, but ‘dialect’ is the word more commonly used and I doubt there are too many people reading this who are in a position to get fussy over the choice of terms, so I’ll stick with the more commonly used terms where possible) were never written. Well, there are characters specific to certain dialects, but still, he’s right. The trouble is, most of this is irrelevant to the subject at hand. The question of how Peking became Beijing has nothing to do with romanisation or characters. The dialects are relevant, but I can’t see how that relevance is anything more than marginal. I would have thought that the key element was phonological change, and that the dialects were only relevant in how they inform us of and affected that phonological change. It takes Mr Man a long time to even begin to address that issue, though, in fact, it takes him until the last paragraph on page 2.

On page 3 we finally get to a discussion of how Beijing got its name. It’s on this page, however, that we start to go astray:

[dammit, now I find myself in need of things like IPA. A pinyin tone tool would also be useful…. Any ideas how to make this happen would be aprreciated, along with help on how to lift text out of a pdf and put it into a normal page and all sorts of other technical stuff. But for the time being, in the absence of proper IPA characters, take *e as that upside down e thing, and I’m not including 汉字 in any quotations]

“The oldest form of the tetragraph for “north” depicts two men standing back to back. North was the direction to which one turned his back because it was cold.


There can be no doubt that the etymology of the Chinese word for “north” (tentatively reconstructed as pÉ™k) is intimately related to the word for “back” (tentatively reconstructed as bÉ™k).


Even the least linguistically astute observer will note that the ancient Chinese word for “back” is almost indistinguishable in sound from the English word “back”. Is this but sheer coincidence, the extraordinary implications of which we should hastily sweep aside before we become seduced by some grand but preposterous Sino-European consanguinity? I think not.”

So the stage is set. He now goes on to demonstrate the historical relationship between the Sinitic and Indo-European languages.

Now, I don’t know about you, but having just waded through a lot of largely irrelevant fluffle about romanisations, scripts, and dialects only to be taken off on yet another tangent as soon as I finally arrive at The Point doesn’t put me in a particularly charitable mood. See, it’s just that any purported relationship between the Sinitic and Indo-European languages is irrelevant, I’ve quite simply never heard such a claim before, and although Mr Man provides a fair bit of evidence, it doesn’t strike me as being a particularly strong argument. It’s all possible, of course, but so is the existence of Nessie. There are differences between ‘possible’, ‘probable’, and established fact (known to scientists as ‘theory’, but the silliness of the evolution/intelligent design/creationism “debate” is proof enough that most people can’t handle the word ‘theory’ properly, so we’ll stick to saying ‘established fact’ even though it’s not as accurate). Mr Man spills a fair bit of ink establishing the relationship between the ‘bei’ of Beijing, the ‘bei’ meaning “back” and a variety of Indo-European words meaning “back” or something similar, then goes on to assert that the ‘jing’ of Beijing originally meant “hill” and goes on to describe how it is related to a variety of Indo-European words meaning “hill” or something similar, until eventually, at the bottom of page 4, he finally gets back to the subject and starts explaining how this word originally meaning “Backhill”, now meaning “Northern Capital”, came to change its pronunciation from something along the lines of pik-king (in the area surrounding Beijing, that is) to the modern day Beijing.

Now, the description of the phonological change strikes me as being perfectly reasonable and matches what I have heard before on the subject. I don’t know how accurate it is, but it strikes me as being reasonable, therefore I won’t dispute it. Anybody more familiar with the subject is free (and welcome) to comment.

My next problem is where he starts talking about the cause of this phonological shift.

“The inquisitive layman naturally wants to know why this happened. Most authorities would assert that it was simply a natural language change. Not being satisfied that anything in the universe happens without a cause or concatenation of causes, I feel compelled to seek a reason for these dramatic modifications in the northern topolects. It seems to me that a possible explanation might lie in the protracted influence of Altaic peoples in north China from the beginning of the tenth century to the beginning of the twentieth century. The Khitans (907 – 1125), Tanguts (1032 – 1227), Jurchens (1115 – 1234), Mongols (1206 – 1367), and Manchus (1644 – 1911) controlled large portions or all of China north of the Yangtze throughout most of the second millenium. The latter two dynasties ruled vast empires that included the whole of China. The deep impact of these non-Sinitic peoples on many facets of Chinese society (institutions, food, music, costume, etc) can easily be shown. Language, too, was unmistakeably affected. Hundreds of well-known Chinese words (as well as the ideas and objects they represented) were adopted from the Tatars and their kin. To name only one example of a more systematic type of change, the Chinese historical linguist, Tang Yu, has assembled abundant evidence that the characteristic retroflex suffix (-r) of certain northern topolects was due to contact with foreign peoples. I suspect that the diphtongization of the simple vowel in the first syllable of Pik-king (“Northern Capital”) was also due to similar causes since it too is a rather late development and is still restricted almost wholly to the northern topolects. The late Mantaro Hashimoto had begun to develop a theory of the Altaicization of Chinese but unfortunately passed away before he was able to describe this phenomenon in detail. The theory surely merits further investigation; eventually it may help account for the shift from Peking to Beijing.”

Bezdomny’s quick note: The Altaic peoples mentioned are now considered more or less part of Chinese history and their kingdoms and dynasties can be found in tables of the Chinese dynasties with Chinese names which may be better known than their own Altaic names. The Khitan founded the Liao/è¾½ Dynasty, the Tangut the 西å¤?, the Jurchen the Jin/金.

Again it’s a fairly weak argument. We go from more or less established influence of Altaic languages (I’m in no position to judge the quality of the research mentioned or how well accepted it may be) to a mere supposition. I mean, it is quite likely that the influence of the Altaic languages played some role in this phonological shift, but Mr Man offers no evidence whatsoever. He offers instead evidence of other Altaic influences on Chinese language, culture and society and a Japanese scholar who was working on demonstrating the Altaicization of Chinese and on this basis supposes that the Altaic languages may bear some responsibility for the shift from Peking to Beijing. This does not strike me as being a good example of the scientific method.

He then goes off on yet another barely relevant ramble about other dialects and languages and how those who, like him, still insist on Peking over Beijing need not feel guilty since in the majority of dialects and languages (i.e. those he cites) a name resembling Peking is used instead of Beijing.

So I was excited to come across this article claiming to explain how Peking became Beijing, even if it came in the form of a rather large (1MB) pdf file, but when I read it I was disappointed. Actually getting to what I wanted, an explanation of how Peking became Beijing, meant wading through a large amount of irrelevant fluffle, much of which had my bullshit detecters damn near burnt out.

About the Author


A Kiwi teaching English to oil workers in Beijing, studying Chinese in my spare time, married to a beautiful Beijing lass, consuming vast quantities of green tea (usually Xihu Longjing/西湖龙井, if that means anything to you), eating good food (except for when I cook), missing good Kiwi ale, breathing smog, generally living as best I can outside Godzone and having a good time of it.

4 thoughts on “That Peking/Beijing thing I mentioned…

  1. His article really did meander around aimlessly. It seems that a certain obsession with termanology is inevitable in scholarly work, though. I agree with you that the similarities in the sound of “back” are just a coincidence. For people really into that sort of thing, look at the word swallow. For that word, the coincidence is amazing in both the spoken and written forms.

    BTW, if you want to see a PDF rendered in html, the easiest way is to do a google search that will turn up that page. Every google search that returns a PDF has an option to display it as html.

  2. Shwa is Unicode character 0259. Put &#x in front and ; after. You don’t even need the zero. Or you could try to copy and paste the character from charmap. The best freely available IPA font comes from the Summer Institute of Linguistics ( I prefer Doulos SIL myself.

    I assume that Adobe Reader has a text select option in the toolbar at the top of the screen. I have Adobe Acrobat, but the setup is probably the same. Usual drag-the-mouse routine; ctrl+c; ctrl+v.

    One note about “back”. It comes from PrG *bakam which pre-supposes a somewhat odd-looking Indo-European root *bhog-. I wouldn’t be surprised if the word is one of many in Germanic which comes from a non-Indo-European source, which makes Man’s argument even less plausible than it is.

    This is the sort of nonsense I have to hold my tongue about, or I’ll end up spending more time dissecting it than it’s worth. I hope you’ve managed to wash the fluffle off.

  3. Anybody who refers to “dailects” as “topolects” is obviously trying to compensate for a severe deficiency in intellectual penis length.

  4. @Mark: thanks for the google tip.

    That bei/back thing had me thinking, well, in Maori the singular definite article is ‘te’. Hey, looks kinda similar to ‘the’! Wow, obviously there must be some genetic link between Austronesian and Indo-European!

    @John: Tried the drag-the-mouse, ctrl+c, ctrl+v thing, didn’t work. Looked through the menus, but gave up pretty quick. Chinese version of reader, couldn’t be arsed figuring out how to make it do what I wanted.

    Fluffle washed off. Maybe it’s better to leave the ranting on this kind of thing to amateurs interested in accuracy, like me. Real linguists have much better things to do.

    @Ben: Amen.

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