The de-Westernization of Chinese

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Lately, we have discussed the Westernization of Chinese languages in several posts, but now, midst the nationalistic fervor of widespread anti-Japanese demonstrations and movements of ships around the Senkakus, comes news of government-sponsored de-Westernization.

According to these new directives from the Ministry of Railways, henceforth Běijīng nán zhàn 北京南站  will be "BeiJingNan Railway Station", not "Beijing South Railway Station", as it is now, and so on for train stations in other parts of the city.  Mind you, these signs are meant for foreigners, so one wonders what someone who knows no Chinese and wants to find Beijing South Railway Station will think when confronted with "BeiJingNan Railway Station".  Furthermore, the InTerCaPiTaLiZaTion (patented by Mark Swofford) is downright bizarre, as is the runningthingstogetherinplaceandstreetnames (trademark of Mark Swofford; this is the opposite of the sep a ra tion of all syl la bles on signs and la bels that one sometimes encounters in China).  In any event, the change from "Beijing South Railway Station" to "BeiJingNan Railway Station" is supposed to constitute a nativist victory over alien English, since English "South" has been replaced by Pinyin "Nan".  Never mind that the equally offensive "Railway Station" still survives.

If this is de-Westernization, I must say that it is both lame and misguided.  In addition, it is mere tokenism designed to mollify the conservative nationalists who despise any taint of Western languages seeping into Chinese languages.  But surely the ultra-patriots must remain sorely dissatisfied, since Hanyu Pinyin itself consists of Roman letters.

Most Chinese I have consulted would parse 北京南站 thus:  Běijīng nán zhàn, which the majority would further render with capitals as Běijīng Nán Zhàn, since it is a place name.  Incidentally, zhàn 站 ("station") is short for huǒchē zhàn 火车站 ("railway station").  N.B.:  Mandarin zhàn 站 ("station") < Mongolian jam ("courier / post station"), and see this learned note from Peter Golden.

For those who still believe that Westernization of Chinese is diminishing, or that Chinese languages do not have words and morphemes, please read these comments.

[Thanks to Maiheng Dietrich, Jiajia Wang, Gianni Wan, Jing Wen, and Liwei Jiao]



30 Comments

  1. KWillets said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 5:23 pm

    CamelCase has a long history separate from Chinese. Maybe it will get people to pronounce BeiJing (and SeoUl) correctly, but it does seem excessive, particularly to type.

    Computer programmers typically use it with the first capitalization omitted, to save the effort of hitting the shift key in one-word names (eg "file", "fileFolder", etc.). People are going to tend towards lowerCase.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

    Did Mandarin-speakers (at least the younger, hipper, lexically "Westernized" subset) previously say "Beijing South" (with the latter word's pronunciation tweaked to the extent necessary to fit Mandarin phonology) when speaking to each other in Mandarin, or is this a separate albeit perhaps politically related issue of the extent to which Latin-alphabet signage is an English translation versus pinyu transliteration of the Mandarin name for the station? To take what seems like something of a parallel, when my family moved to Tokyo for a few years back in the '70's and my mom would take my little brother to (Anglophone) nursery school on the subway, it was very helpful that the station signage was bi-scriptal, so she didn't need to know the right kanji to recognize the stop to get off at – but it didn't much matter that the signs at the relevant station said "Naka-Meguro" in Romaji transliteration rather than being half-translated to "Central Meguro," as long as she knew what to look for in a script she could read. Toponyms need not be semantically transparent, as long as you can recognize them when you see them.

    Here, there will of course at a minimum be a transitional period of confusion as long as tourists are using guidebooks or maps that say "Beijing South" instead of "Beijing Nan" (whereas when we were in Tokyo the Romaji station signage generally matched the English-language maps and guidebooks). I spent a few days in the Outer Hebrides back in the '90's when the local government had just employed some EU minority-language-preservation grant money to change much of the road signage to use the Gaelic rather than English spellings of the local toponyms but most hapless tourists had purchased still-on-the-market road maps using only the latter set of spellings, which no longer corresponded to the signage. This sometimes made it a bit hard to figure out which turn to take at a deserted crossroads.

  3. L said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 7:50 pm

    Gare du Sud never bothered me. I expect them to name it in the native language.

    Railroad Station du Sud sounds kinda dopey.

  4. Mark Mandel said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 8:01 pm

    That's not deWesternization of Chinese, that's Westernization of Chinese English toponymy. (I'm too tired to figure out how to clean up the scope ambiguity there.)

  5. Chris C. said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 8:03 pm

    @KWillets — This computer programmer doesn't use CamelCase at all if he can help it. The last thing I need is to try to track down a compilation error (or, in languages that are not strongly typed, a runtime error) stemming from poor timing on the shift key. Besides, there's a reason God created the underscore as a non-operator lexical element.

  6. KWillets said,

    September 18, 2012 @ 9:54 pm

    I agree with Mark, it's an obsession with how English speakers might label Chinese places. Maybe they're worried that Chinese will start using the English versions.

    Are the names announced audibly as well (on the subway etc.)? That might be one reason.

  7. Peter said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 12:31 am

    I think this is really a non-issue. For me, I'm just gonna call it 北京南站 no matter who I'm talking to. For people who can't speak any Chinese, saying "Beijing Nan station" is probably going to be more successful with the taxi drivers than "Beijing South station" anyways (and naming and signage is a practical communication issue). Also, doesn't really seem relevant to westernization–it doesn't affect the Chinese, and it's unlikely to make foreigners riot.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 6:37 am

    @Peter

    "I think this is really a non-issue. For me, I'm just gonna call it 北京南站 no matter who I'm talking to."

    You may think it's a non-issue, but the Chinese government, which has had one of its ministries issue a directive about it, obviously does not think it's a non-issue, nor do lots of people who are upset with creeping Westernization think it's a non-issue. And isn't it a bit extreme for you to insist on saying "Běijīng Nán Zhàn" to people who know only English when you know perfectly well that it means "Beijing South (Railway) Station"? What's the point of doing that? Since you yourself declare that "naming and signage is a practical communication issue", why would you want to obfuscate by stubbornly saying "Běijīng Nán Zhàn" when what they need to hear, and what you are perfectly capable of telling them, is "Beijing South (Railway) Station"? Wouldn't that be more helpful?

  9. michael farris said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 6:53 am

    Not exactly the same thing but when if I'm in Budapest I get confused (momentarily at least) by peope referring to the Western or Eastern train stations (as opposed to Nyugati or Keleti).

    I know enough Hungarian to understand the words but still it's confusing. Maybe partly because there's no use of English in the official signage naming the stations as far as I recall (and neither is really west or east of anything notable nor do they serve those parts of the country).

    In the Beijing station case my preferred solution would be the bilingual tri-script option.

    北京南站

    Běijīng Nán Zhàn

    (Beijing South Station)

    With the hanzi being on top and largest, the pinyin being very visible with the English translation being somewhat smaller and maybe eventually phased out (and is 'railway' or 'railroad' really needed in the translation).

    The objectionable thing here (for me) is not the intention to reinforce the local name of the station (no matter the language of the person using it) but the graceless, inconsiderate and awkward way it's being carried out (which seems to be how the government there acts all the time).

  10. Chris Waugh said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 6:57 am

    @Victor:

    What obfuscation? Expats in China, whether they speak Chinese or not, generally know the Chinese names of destinations they need to get to because the English names make no sense when the people who get you to those places simply don't know the English names. And if they don't speak Chinese and/or don't know the Chinese name for a place they want to get to, they generally have recourse to a written form of the name. As for tourists, if when visiting gaie Paree they can cope with Gare du Sud then in Beijing…

  11. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 7:02 am

    This is purely a matter of state assertion, though of exactly what remains unclear if they only half-change the name.

    It may confuse people for a bit, until they (local or visitor) get used to the new name. Or like the Avenue of The Americas, the name may never get any public traction at all.

    I can't see why it matters, on a navigational basis (beyond the transition period. What, pray tell, tells either the visitor or the local, that Penn Station is on the west and Grand Central is on the east side?

    What tells anybody where LaGuardia or JFK airports are? National and Dulles? Charles DeGaulle?

    Sometimes you don't need to understand a name, you just need to learn it.

    You can puzzle out that Leningradskaya Vokzal is someplace at the end of town nearest… ooops… St Petersburg… nevermind.

  12. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:37 am

    @Chris Waugh

    Expats are far from being the only foreigners who come to China.

  13. Peter said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:33 am

    @Victor

    I understand that the government is taking this seriously, even though it doesn't seem relevant to the westernization of Chinese (and I'm sure my stances on that issue are closer to yours than to any department of the Chinese government).

    That said, I don't think this really matters, and I don't see that there's any principle involved. If the best way for a chinese-challenged foreigner to communicate the location of "北京南站" to their cab driver were to do a jig while whistling, then I'd recommend rewriting the signs in Solfège and pictograms of leprechauns. Unfortunately that is not the case. (Really, really unfortunately.) The best way is to just do your best to pronounce the pinyin; knowing that "nan" means south is less important than knowing how to say "nan". Proper nouns mostly point out things. Secondarily they may have semantically interesting or relevant features.

  14. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 1:03 pm

    @Peter

    1. The Chinese media and bloggers think it is relevant to the Westernization of Chinese, so who are you to say it isn't?

    2. How can you say it doesn't matter? Clearly it matters a lot to many Chinese who are exercised by English showing up in Chinese. And it also matters a great deal to people from abroad who are trying to find their way around Chinese cities.

    3. You can make jokes about jigs, whistling, and leprechauns, but that doesn't help people with the problem at hand.

    4. If you are really in favor of Pinyin ("do your best to pronounce the pinyin"), then why wouldn't you support the full Pinyin version of the name — Běijīng Nán Zhàn — instead of the bizarre, bastardized version offered up by the government: "BeiJingNan Railway Station"?

  15. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 1:05 pm

    Where I live, in El Cerrito, California, we have the opposite situation. The station on our transit system, BART, that should be called North El Cerrito (by analogy with North Berkeley, West Oakland and South Hayward) is actually called El Cerrito del Norte, which is not even good Spanish (the del is superfluous).

  16. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 1:44 pm

    from Neil Kubler:

    I agree that an argument for xizhan could be made, but I think that, on the whole, xi zhan is even better. Therefore, I would write: Beijing Xi Zhan, just like that.

    Why? Well, first of all, if xizhan is a word, then dongzhan, nanzhan, and beizhan obviously would also be, and our dictionaries and vocabulary lists would get very long indeed.

    A key consideration is whether xi by itself is a word or not. It's rather bound, since it most commonly occurs bound to other elements, as in xibian or xifang or xibu, etc. But it CAN occur as a free form, e.g., wang xi zou, wang dong kai, etc. So since xi is potentially free, "Beijing West Station" can be written as Beijing Xi Zhan.

  17. Tom Bishop said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 2:04 pm

    I also prefer "Beijing Xi Zhan" over "Beijing Xizhan".

    A problem with "Beijing Xizhan" is this "xizhan" isn't a word even in a large dictionary, though there are several unrelated entries pronounced "xizhan". Without context, the meaning of "xizhan" would be completely mysterious, and the dictionary would be no help at all — even worse than no help, since it offers various possibilities, all wrong.

    On the other hand, "xi" and "zhan" are both words (not just bound forms), and they are even the most common words with their respective pronunciations. The most likely meaning of "Xi Zhan" would be "West Station", even if there were no context.

    Of course, normally there will be some context and the meaning can be guessed, but that's true even if it's written "BeiJingXiZhan". Ideally the orthography should help make it easier to figure out the meaning. A first step towards figuring out the meaning of a phrase is to see how it's segmented into words. For this purpose, "xi zhan" succeeds, and "xizhan" fails.

    The same problem presents itself for software, such as for automatic conversion between pinyin and hanzi. How is the computer supposed to know to join "xi" and "zhan", unless there's a dictionary entry for "xizhan" (or for "Beijing Xizhan")?

    A dictionary entry for "xi zhan" might be justified, but maybe as two words, a noun phrase rather than a simple noun?

    In English, we have a simple rule for determining whether something is a "word": look in the dictionary, and if it's written there without a space, it's a word. Otherwise, it isn't. At least, this works well for Scrabble!

    By the way, I noticed in Germany recently that in the street names, "strasse" is written sometimes as a suffix, and sometimes as a separate word; I couldn't figure out the rule. Does anybody know? Compare "Friedrichstraße" and "Leipziger Straße". (I don't know German.)

  18. Mr Punch said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 2:18 pm

    Ï think Victor is to some extent contradicting himself here, insisting that while "lame and misguided" we can't say it's not relevant to the Westernization of Chinese." Well, yes we can, because it's not Chinese; the signage is (as he says) intended for foreign visitors. This isn't about language, it's about xenophobia – "no way we're going to cater to those foreigners." (It's actually a bit like those places in Europe where notices used to be translated into every major European language except German.)

  19. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    @Mr Punch

    No, I am not contradicting myself. It is a clumsy, lame, and misguided attempt to stem the tide of Westernization, so it is indeed related to the debate over Westernization.

    Who says "we can't say it's not relevant to the Westernization of Chinese.""? And exactly what are you implying by that double negative and the extra quotation mark?

    The Chinese insist that it has to do with Westernization, and that is why they made that awkward shift from "Beijing South" to "BeiJingNan", which they consider to be a step in the right direction away from Westernization.

  20. Coby Lubliner said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:05 pm

    Tom Bishop: In German it's a simple matter of grammar. Friedrichstraße is a two-noun compound, which it's normal to write as one "word," while leipziger is an adjective modifying Straße.

    But I find it hard to agree with your "rule for determining whether something is a 'word'." Do you really believe that ice cream is not a "word"?

  21. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:21 pm

    The issue here has almost nothing to do with navigation, and after some transition period during which people and tourist maps get adjusted it will all be just fine.

    The issue lies entirely in what some above have called xenophobia, or in whatever alternate explanation you care to advance. In light of inflammatory statements about the islands and the inflammatory banners, it all seems to point at a nationalist-xenophobic tone being adopted by somebody. In light of the censorship practiced in China, it would seem to suggest that this somebody is acting with the tacit tolerance of the State… and quite possibly with a great deal more.

    Nationalist surges usually suggest either a national sense of insecurity, or else the manipulation of such feelings as cover for some other purpose.

    What might the Chinese State be up to? I think that's the most important question here, and whatever clues we can get – linguistic or otherwise – could be terribly important.

  22. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 3:54 pm

    Obviously the line between what is government-controlled and what is a purely private business is no doubt somewhat fuzzy in the PRC, but I assume these are signs on government-owned facilities by anyone's definition. If there start being directives about what is acceptable and unacceptable on private-business signage (a la Quebec and other places), that would be a worrisome next step. May I suggest that the pinyin "Beijing nan zhan" be accompanied by the English translation "Peking South Station"?

  23. Peter said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    @Victor

    1. I say it doesn't matter because it's not even about Chinese. It's about Chinese signage for westerners. As other people have mentioned, it might be about "xenophobia" or annoying for

    2. It doesn't really matter for Chinese learning English since the names of Beijing train stations isn't a big part of learning English. It seems at worst neutral for foreigners trying to find their way around; it might make communication with Chinese easier (or not), and I don't think anyone will die from not knowing which geographical directions the train stations correspond to.

    3. In my experience, jigs and whistling help with most problems.

    4. I agree: Běijīng Nán Zhàn would be better than "BeiJingNan Railway Station". At least it would be good to incorporate it into the signage somewhere.

  24. Peter said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 8:02 pm

    *annoying foreigners.

  25. Victor Mair said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

    @Peter

    1. It does matter because it's about language usage in China, and the Chinese care about that, though you may not.

    2. It's not a question of dying or living, it's a matter of the degree to which English (and Roman letters) can be a part of the linguistic landscape in China.

    3. You're unusual.

    4. Thank goodness we agree on at least one thing!

  26. Tom Bishop said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:07 pm

    To answer Coby Lubliner's question, as far as the game of Scrabble is concerned, ice cream is not a word. It does illustrate the point I was trying to make. The convention of writing "ice cream" rather than "icecream" may be arbitrary; at least I can't explain it. But it's an easy convention to follow: as I'm writing this, "icecream" is automatically underlined in red, meaning that it's not in the spell-checking dictionary. Now that English orthography is relatively standardized, for the most part we don't try to rationalize it; instead we rely on dictionaries.

    As Hanyu Pinyin orthography becomes increasingly standardized, ideally it will be more rational than English orthography. Still, when in doubt, we may refer to dictionaries. If there's no entry for "xizhan" (meaning "west station"), we might conclude that it should be written as two words "xi zhan". That is, unless there's a rule that implies otherwise, similar to the rule you explained for German about joining two-noun compounds. Thank you for explaining that, by the way!

  27. L said,

    September 19, 2012 @ 10:34 pm

    @Victor Mair –

    You know, he may have a point about "jigs, whistling, and leprechauns." In China, they may not recognize the Irish stereotype and take it at face value without the attendant baggage – as simply jigs, and simply whistling, and simply leprechauns.

    Stripped of Lucky Charms and Notre Dame allusions, it's merely a delightful and charming way to mime "south railroad station."

  28. Victor Mair said,

    September 21, 2012 @ 11:23 am

    @L

    Now you're into pure whimsy and have left linguistics far behind.

  29. Jonathan said,

    September 22, 2012 @ 1:34 pm

    @ Victor

    To choose a parallel example, is it "extreme" to refer to the Parisian train station as "Gare du Nord" when speaking to an American, even though you know perfectly well that it means "North Station"? Personally, I have never heard anyone translate the name

    Of course, the French aren't drawing up signs that read "GardoonOrd Railway Station" either….

  30. Jean-Michel said,

    September 23, 2012 @ 9:21 pm

    Something that hasn't been mentioned yet: each railway station in China is assigned a unique pinyin name in addition to the hanzi form; for Beijing South, that name is "Beijingnan," and always has been as far as I can tell. The renaming may simply be an effort to bring the "English" name (more or less) in line with the official pinyin form.

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