Backhill / Peking / Beijing

by Bosat Man

The three main contributing factors to the discrepancy between Peking and Beijing are: 1. a plethora of romanizations, 2. a welter of local pronunciations, and 3. phonological change over time. Let us examine these factors one by one.

One of the banes of Sinology (there are too many to recount in a brief essay such as this which focuses on a single, specific topic) is that there is a surfeit of competing phonetic transcriptions of Modern Standard Mandarin, not to mention the other Sinitic (sometimes called Ran) languages or, even less, the non-Sinitic languages of China. The two main systems currently used in the English-speaking world are that known as Wade-Giles and another known as Pinyin. The former, devised by two English scholars over a century ago, is favored by those who study traditional China and remains the standard in virtually all of our major East Asian libraries. The latter, which means simply "spelling" and is the official alphabetical orthography sponsored by the government of the People's Republic, naturally tends to be used more by those who study and write about contemporary China. Identical sounds in the spoken language may look quite dissimilar when written in the various romanizations. For example, Pei-ching in Wade Giles and Beijing in Pinyin are both intended to represent the Modern Standard Mandarin (hereafter MSM) pronunciation of the name of the capital of China.

For those who wish to learn to pronounce Pei-ching or Beijing correctly, the first syllable sounds like American "bay" with a very low, dipping tonal-contour and the second syllable is like the fIrst syllable of "jingle" with a high, level tone: bǎy-jīng. One should not be overly anxious about the correct intonation of the two syllables because it is very hard to get them just right and, furthermore, people from the various districts of China articulate them quite differently anyway even when trying to approximate MSM. If the consonants and vowels are close to accurate, context will make clear that one is referring to the capital of the country.

This leads to one of the greatest conceptual difficulties in dealing with Chinese (or Sinitic) languages, namely the fact that there is not just one of them. There is a pervasive myth that all one billion plus Chinese speak MSM. Nothing could be further from the truth. First of all, there are scores of so-called "minority nationalities" living within the territory of China, such as the Uighurs, the Zhuang, the Tibetans, the Miao, the Yao, and the Yi, whose languages do not even belong to the Sinitic language group. Among Sinitic languages, there are at least seven or eight major branches that are mutually unintelligible. These are often erroneously referred to as "dialects" through mistranslation of the Chinese term fangyan ("topolect," i.e. language of a place). Even within the seven or eight major branches, there is enormous variety. For example, although individuals from rural Yinchuan in the northern part of Ningsia, from the hills to the west of Chengtu and Chungking in Szechwan, and from the countryside along the Mekong and Salween Rivers in southwestern Yunnan near the Burmese border are all said to speak Mandarin, it is often extremely difficult for them to make any sense of what each other is saying.

One of the causes for this obfuscation concerning Sinitic languages is the fact that there is only a single Sinitic script, normally referred to by the quaint expression "Chinese characters," but better designated by the English equivalent of the native term fangkuaizi ("tetragraphs," i.e. square-shaped graphs). It is often falsely assumed that, because there is only one Sinitic script, there is accordingly only one Sinitic language. According to this logic, Turkish, Latin, Zhuang, English, Vietnamese, Czech, Tagalog, German, French, Italian, etc. are all the same language because they all use the same Roman letters. Of course, that is nonsense, for a script does not a language make but is only a tool for writing down languages....