Weaponized Tibetan Pinyin

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Jichang Lulu has just posted a very interesting article titled  "the clash of romanisations" (5/12/17).  It begins:

Last month the Ministry of Civil Affairs (民政部) published a list of six 'standardised' place names in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a large part of which the PRC claims as part of South Tibet (藏南). This generated the predictable Indian protests, media brouhaha and mandatory Globule sovereignty-reaffirming blather. Analysis of what's being called a "renaming" of Arunachal "districts" sees it as retaliation for the Dalai Lama's recent visit to the region. All these hit-back-at-the-DL-to-"re"affirm-sovereignty readings are surely plausible, but I don't think it's very clear in which sense these ministerial coinages are 'renaming' or 'standardising' anything.

Here are the ministry's new 'standard' toponyms, in Chinese, Tibetan and romanisation (my additions in square brackets):

乌间岭 [pinyin Wujian ling]
ཨོ་རྒྱན་གླིང། [Wylie o rgyan gling]
Wo'gyainling

米拉日 [Mila ri]
མི་ལ་རི། [mi la ri]
Mila Ri

曲登嘎布日 [Qudeng gabu ri]
མཆོད་རྟེན་དཀར་པོ་རི། [mchod rten dkar po ri]
Qoidêngarbo Ri

梅楚卡 [Meichuka]
སྨན་ཆུ་ཁ། [sman chu kha]
Mainquka

白明拉山口 [Baimingla shankou]
པུས་མོ་ལ། [pus mo la]
Bümo La

纳姆卡姆 [Namukamu]
གནམ་ཁ་ཕུབ་རི། [gnam kha phub ri]
Namkapub Ri

The Chinese names are simply transcriptions of the Tibetan names (except for one translated element: ལ la 山口 shānkǒu 'pass'), largely using characters typically chosen for similar Tibetan transcriptions. The Chinese toponyms aren't a 'renaming' in any way, but simply a pretty standard way of standardising the Tibetan names. The issue then becomes whether the Tibetan names were coined by the Relevant Departments, thus 'renaming' Arunachal locations.

This corresponds to China's belief that, by naming places where it has conflicts with other nations and even ethnicities within its own borders, it duly asserts sovereignty over them.  Sometimes this is done formally and with very clear political intentions, as in the present instance.  In other cases, the renaming is done informally but gradually becomes an accustomed reference.

According to the rules for Pinyin in the larger sense (not just for Putonghua / Modern Standard Mandarin (MSM), there are scholarly, sophisticated Pinyin spellings for non-Sinitic names.  For example, the city that we know as Urumchi, or more precisely Ürümchi ئۈرۈمچى‎, is — in proper cartographic Pinyin — Ürümqi, but most people ignore that and transcribe the name as Wūlǔmùqí 乌鲁木齐 or just (I shudder to utter it) Wūshì 乌市 ("Wu City").  For those who are unfamiliar with this Eastern Central Asian city with a population approaching four million, it is the capital of the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR), aka Uyghurstan, Eastern Turkestan, etc., which constitutes one-sixth of the whole of the PRC.

For some earlier Language Log posts that touch upon Chinese transcriptions of Tibetan names, see:

"Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish " (11/11/15)

"Tibetan –> Chinese –> Chinglish, ch. 2" (11/20/15)

"Hide the satisfied store in statue of Buddha" (7/18/12)



14 Comments

  1. Bathrobe said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:01 pm

    This mentality seems to be a carry over from the Qing. The Qing loved their maps delineating "all under heaven". The Pentaglot Dictionary was a glossary in the five languages of the realm (Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chagatai, and Chinese), thus claiming sovereignty over all five. (Modern China has demoted all but Chinese to secondary status.) The Chinese have taken over the whole Qing project, including the territorial claims, the insistence on ritualised formal submission (including the symbolic imposition of a single time zone over the whole country, a practice unknown in the rest of the world), the use of population movements to consolidate territories, the right to vet the process of selecting the Dalai Lama (this from Jichang Lulu), and much else besides. Communist Party control (through oversight of the bureaucracy), personal control from the top, and privilege for top leadership, which has been there from the very start, also resembles the Manchus. The Communist party resembles the Manchu banners almost as much as it does a political party.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:20 pm

    I'm still surprised it's Wulu- and not Yulü-.

  3. Bathrobe said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:24 pm

    A similar phenomenon exists in bird names. Chinese lists of bird names include Taiwan (of course), the South China Sea, and South Tibet. By including these areas in bird lists, Chinese ornithologists simply follow the national lead on asserting sovereignty.

  4. julie lee said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 7:59 pm

    Thanks for the interesting post. I actually like the Chinese name U Shi ("U City", in Mandarin) for "Urumchi", otherwise "Ulumuqi" in Mandarin. Abbreviating is so characteristically Chinese. After all, we have Mei Guo ("Mei Country") for "America" or the United States.

  5. Travis said,

    May 12, 2017 @ 8:56 pm

    I thought about this sort of thing a lot when I was living in Okinawa earlier this year. The political, discursive, implications or effects of renaming places to a more standard Japanese reading, thus incorporating them more fully into a less foreign, more homogeneously mainstream Japanese nation. This happens all over the place, but struck me particularly when I went out to see an exhibit at the very tiny, very local/provincial village hall at Yonagusuku 与那城, and found that all the kana pronunciation guides and romanization said Yonashiro, converting the Okinawan "gusuku" (widely known and still used in plenty of placenames) to the more standard Japanese "shiro." For what? Why bother? In any case, I wonder if what's going on in Tibet and Xinjiang is more or less the same? Or is it an especially distinct, significant, phenomenon?

  6. Bathrobe said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 6:03 am

    I think they are related. Japan has long been a model for China. Where Japan leads, China follows.

    This applies to language (standardisation of a national language), cultural policies (creation of a majority-dominated national cultural narrative), and recently economic policies (state-backed capitalism). When Japan falters, China both exults in the misfortune of its nemesis and worries about the implications for its own future.

    Japan unified the written and spoken languages and sidelined that part of its cultural tradition derived from China. China has unified the written and spoken languages in the form of putonghua (Guoyu or Mandarin) and claims the mantle of 5000 years of culture, implicitly placing what it identifies as the 'mainstream' above others. Japan wiped out the culture of the Ainu (the language was banned from being spoken in schools and playgrounds) and demoted Okinawan from being a separate language (the language of the kingdom of Ryukyu) to a mere dialect — an aberrant one at that. China is doing something similar, only on a more massive scale.

  7. J K said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 10:30 am

    I've noticed over the years that the name on google maps has gone back and forth from Hami to Kumul, the latter being a name Uyghurs often use for the city.

    Also, I read in a news report about a new village China established in Xinjiang called 和泰新村, a name which is unintentionally comical because Hetai sounds like Xitai, the Uyghur name for "Chinese", which the Chinese government claims is derogatory. So it sounds like New Xitai Village, an apt name for a colonial outpost.

  8. Jichang Lulu said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 2:31 pm

    There's also a pinyin-style romanisation for Mongolian, also brimming with q's and x's. You can see it in place names (e.g. Xilingol), and it's moderately topical at the moment, given the impending decision on World Heritage status for an area in Qinghai. The area has a Mongolian name, ᠬᠥᠭᠡ ᠰᠢᠯᠢ Köke sili (which would give Хөхшил in Cyrillic), a Chinese name derived from it, 可可西里 Kěkěxīlǐ, and an unrelated Tibetan name. The Mongolian/Chinese name has in turn spawned a large number of romanised versions. The official Chinese romanisation ('Mongolian pinyin') is Hoh Xil, likely to elicit plausible approximations of the standard Mongolian pronunciation in people familiar with pinyin x, a sibilant. That romanisation is used, for example, in China's UNESCO submission, and is likely to become UNESCO-official if the nomination is approved.

    The issue is complicated, because "Hoh Xil" transcribes a pronunciation in a language (standard Mongolian) that isn't spoken in the area. Other Mongolic varieties could be more relevant, although at present the area seems most connected with Tibetan speakers. It would be interesting to learn what they call it: perhaps a form related to the Chinese/Mongolian name, or to the Tibetan ཨ་ཆེན་གངས་རྒྱལ། a chen gangs rgyal.

  9. Bathrobe said,

    May 13, 2017 @ 7:12 pm

    Official pinyin-style transcriptions are used in Inner Mongolia, but only seem to add to the overall confusion over Mongolian transcriptions. For example, the official romanisation of ᠤᠯᠠᠭᠠᠨᠴᠠᠪ, Ulanqab, looks strange, not only because it uses 'q' and 'b', but because it fails to show the long vowel in 'ulaan'. But it's not the only romanisation around. A quick search turns up Ulanchab, Ulaanchab, and Ulaantsav (Khalkh pronunciation). It can be considered a small victory if even the pinyin-style romanisation is used since all too many websites (commonly Chinese tourism websites) predictably use a transliteration of the Chinese name, that is, Wulanchabu (from 乌兰察布).

    But confusion over romanisations of Mongolian is not confined to Inner Mongolia. The Mongolian lake known officially as Khövsgöl is also found as Huvsgul, Hovsgol, Hövsgöl, etc.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 7:28 am

    @Bathrobe

    "all too many websites (commonly Chinese tourism websites) predictably use a transliteration of the Chinese name, that is, Wulanchabu (from 乌兰察布)."

    In which case, get ready for another Wūshì 乌市 ("Wu City") — see my remarks about the Chinese name for Ürümchi near the end of the o.p.

  11. Rodger C said,

    May 14, 2017 @ 11:11 am

    @Bathrobe: I also recall Höbsögöl, but that was ages ago and, I think, National Geographic.

  12. Eidolon said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 5:39 pm

    "This mentality seems to be a carry over from the Qing. The Qing loved their maps delineating "all under heaven". The Pentaglot Dictionary was a glossary in the five languages of the realm (Manchu, Tibetan, Mongolian, Chagatai, and Chinese), thus claiming sovereignty over all five. (Modern China has demoted all but Chinese to secondary status.) The Chinese have taken over the whole Qing project, including the territorial claims, the insistence on ritualised formal submission (including the symbolic imposition of a single time zone over the whole country, a practice unknown in the rest of the world), the use of population movements to consolidate territories, the right to vet the process of selecting the Dalai Lama (this from Jichang Lulu), and much else besides. Communist Party control (through oversight of the bureaucracy), personal control from the top, and privilege for top leadership, which has been there from the very start, also resembles the Manchus. The Communist party resembles the Manchu banners almost as much as it does a political party."

    I disagree. The only aspect of modern China that particularly resembles the Qing is the territorial claims. The practice of granting and enforcing Chinese names or transcriptions in foreign lands has been a persistent Chinese practice since at least the Han, and the concept of symbolic/ritualized submission has been almost synonymous with Chinese statecraft since the beginning. Using population movements to consolidate territory is again an old Chinese tradition – pretty much every Chinese dynasty used it extensively – while the right to confirm the Dalai Lama was a Qing carry over from the Mongols, who established the station in the first place.

    Meanwhile, the demotion of minority languages to second class status is a significant departure from the Qing, which at least in theory sought to be multi-lingual, especially in its self-interested preservation of Manchu. The Communist Party is also very different from the banners, in the sense that the banners were the instrument of the Qing dynastic house closed to outsiders, while the Party exists for the sake of a much larger oligarchic body, consisting of an alliance between China's business and political elites. Such an institution is much more similar to the typical arrangement seen in authoritarian regimes today, than the Qing specifically. In fact I find it more similar to the system in Japan, where the government is dominated by a single party of oligarchic corporate and political families, despite democratic institutions.

    I do, however, agree that modern China has mostly followed Japan in its development in the last three decades, while earlier it followed the Soviets. But I'd also observe that Japan modeled itself after late 19th century Western nation-states, especially Germany but also Britain, France, and Italy. The various processes you observed ultimately had their roots in European nation-building in the 18th and 19th centuries – a time of ethno-linguistic unification, cultural homogenization, territorial conflicts leading up to the World Wars.

  13. Bathrobe said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 6:25 pm

    The only aspect of modern China that particularly resembles the Qing is the territorial claims.

    I assume you mean that the only aspect of modern China that specifically and uniquely resembles the Qing. I agree that the Qing (and the Japanese) were working from earlier models, but often it is the proximate model that has most relevance. Of course, it is well known that Mao, for one, was heavily influenced by earlier models from Chinese history, not just the Qing. But I'm not sure I buy the concept that he was consciously following the Mongols of the Ming in the selection of the Dalai Lama. The proximate model seems more plausible.

    Comparing the CCP to the banners is admittedly a stretch. I don't disagree with your comments on the CCP and its resemblance to the LDP. However, given the rights, obligations, and privileges that go with CCP membership, and the dominant role of the CCP in the state and society, I don't think the CCP and the LDP are completely comparable, either. My point (which was, to be sure, not explained or elaborated) was that we should perhaps not be too influenced by the fact that the CCP has 党 in its name.

  14. Eidolon said,

    May 17, 2017 @ 6:57 pm

    "My point (which was, to be sure, not explained or elaborated) was that we should perhaps not be too influenced by the fact that the CCP has 党 in its name."

    I'd agree that they're not a political party in the sense of the Democratic or the Republican Party in the US. As an institution and as an organization, the CCP is basically synonymous with the entire power holding *class* in modern China. But that too would distinguish them from the Qing banners, which were an instrument of apartheid rule, with the banners governing the Manchus and the civil bureaucracy governing the Chinese. In modern China, by contrast, CCP rule is absolute – there is no separate or competing system of administration. Every important position, whether in the country's leadership, its military, or its civil bureaucracy, is staffed by the CCP. This is much more similar to the typical one-party authoritarian systems in Russia, North Korea, etc.

    But I'd mention that, just as the case in the US, it is often the unseen ties of privilege that are the most binding. Party membership isn't an automatic ticket to power. You have to build the right connections. The CCP has nearly 90 million members and in theory is open to all Chinese citizens. But the vast majority of this 90 million have no actual power. To them party membership is just a piece of paper you get when you get a government job, and here the experience *does* reflect that of the typical Democrat or Republican party member, who similarly has very little say in the way the party is run.

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