September 14, 2012

What's in a Place Name: In Asia, It's Location

They teach it to kids in social studies: The ancient Chinese considered themselves at the center of the world, and thus came the Chinese name for the country, 中国 (zhongguo), or "Middle Kingdom."

The character (zhong) is simple enough to understand: a  vertical line going through the center of a square.

But that's not to say the Middle Kingdom notion has stuck. Althoughstill means "center" today, as in "the center of the room" or "the middle of a sentence," people don't think center so much in the country name. (zhong) has come to mean, by itself, "China" or "Chinese."1

And the label "kingdom" is also a little grand for modern-day thinking, since the character is attached to the names of numerous countries, including 美国 (America) and 英国 (England).

But location is found in numerous other place names in China and Asia. China's capital is Beijing, or 北京 (Beijing)—literally Northern Capital, with for "north" and meaning "capital." But it isn't the only capital in name. Nanking (南京) means Southern Capital and off to the east is Dongjing (东京), or Eastern Capital, two characters that the Japanese pronounce Tokyo.2

Hop on over the Taiwan and you find a similar scheme.

Up to the 1890s, the Chinese imperial court refused to allow the barbaric technology of the West into the country, and that included electricity and trains. These things were to crass. But a few officials felt that the superior Chinese civilization could tame these inventions and put them to good use.

One of them, a man by the name of Liu Mingchuan, persuaded the court to let him try, so long as he didn't do it right in the middle of China. And so Taiwan was chosen, and it was here that China got its first electricity and its first trains.3

Tragically, in 1895, Taiwan was ceded to the Japanese following the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) and would remain Japanese territory for five decades, until the end of the Second Sino Japanese War (1938-1945), following the U.S. defeat of Japan.

But the train system Liu had mapped out for the island was so good that the Japanese stuck with it. They also stuck with the new capital city Liu on the north end of the island, Taipei, 台北 (tai) as in Taiwan (台湾) and (pei or bei) as in north.4

This is an important distinction since the true cultural center of Taiwan was in the south, in the city of Tainan, or台南, which means "Tai-south." The northern end of the island was closer to the Japanese islands and separated from the south. In fact, at the end of World War II, there was still very little development in Taipei.

And four years later the Nationalists under Chiang Kai-shek set up their new capital in Taipei.

But back to the place in place names, in addition to Taipei (Tai-north) and Tainan (Tai-south) is the central Taiwan city of Taichung (台中,Tai-center), the coastal town on the eastern end of the island, Taitung (台東, or Tai-east), and the little-known village along the western end of the island, Taihsi (台西).

And these are just a few of the locations that appear in Chinese place names.

So while to an outsider, Chinese appears to be an impossibly difficult language, all of this serves as one example of how simply logical it can be. And we see that place is central in many place names.


1. Chinese signs are still often written right to left in some places. In Taiwan, in what might be termed a Smarter than a Fifth Grader test, a common term for junior high school,国中, is 中国 (China) backward, the here meaning "middle," as in middle school.
2. In Chinese, most foreign place names are assigned transliterated—or sound-alike—names, as in Niuyue (New York) and Sanfanshi (San Francisco). But Japanese place names, which are written in Japanese kanji (literally, "Chinese characters"), work just fine in Chinese.

3. For further reading, see "Formosa: A Study in Chinese History," by W.G Goddard, Caves Books.

4. Chinese place names have become confusing when Romanized. Beijing, like all place names on the mainland, are now Romanized with the Pinyin spelling system, a very logical and reliable system. Older systems still have a hold in Taiwan, rendering the capital city台北 as Taipei (rather than Taibei, as it is pronounced). Similarly, Beijing was formerly known to the world as Peking, just as Nanjing was known as Nanking.

Names: 中国, 北京, 南京, 东京, 東京, 台湾, 台北, 台南, 台中, 台東, 台西

By John Sailors,
(C) 2012, by Story Crest Press

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