War on foreign names in China

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AP News report (6/21/19) by Fu Ting:  "Chinese crackdown on foreign names draws protest".  The article begins thus:

The Manhattan neighborhood, Venice Garden, the Vienna hotel chain — to the ears of the Chinese government, the names are too foreign-sounding and must go.

Provinces and cities across China have been issuing notices pressuring both private and public officials to rename businesses, bridges and neighborhoods, reflecting renewed efforts by President Xi Jinping’s government to “sinicize” China.

The move came to light after Vienna Hotels, which according to its website operates 2,500 properties in China, fought back on social media this week, and other users jumped in to ridicule the move.

China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs confirmed Friday that the campaign is underway, but said that some local governments are not implementing the new rule accurately. It maintained though that foreign names have an ugly social influence that needs to be cleaned up.

The post on the ministry’s website added that along with foreign names, names that are “weird, repetitive, or self-aggrandizing” should also be changed….

The controversy is still growing, as is evident from other articles that have just been published:

"China still committed to getting rid of ‘big, foreign and weird’ place names", by He Huifeng, SCMP (6/22/19):

Civil affairs ministry reaffirms plan to eradicate names that ‘violate the core values of socialism, damage national confidence’

One man says it reminds him of the dark days of the Cultural Revolution

Beijing has reiterated its commitment to rid Chinese cities of “big, foreign and weird” property and place names, sparking a backlash from the public.

The campaign began last year when six government departments introduced a joint policy requiring provincial and county authorities to identify all such properties within their jurisdictions and rename them by the end of March….

"China’s weeding out 'Western-worship' property names like 'Beverly Villa' and 'Versailles Garden'", by Echo Huang, Quartz (6/21/19):

In China, names like “Florence Town,” “Vienna Hotel,” “Beverly Villa,” or “Manhattan Square” have long signaled how upscale a hotel or gated community is. But amid trade tensions, city governments are admonishing these properties for looking up to the West.

Local governments from at least seven provinces and one autonomous region—Hainan, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Ningxia—have ordered a number of businesses and residential complexes to “rectify” names that suggest “Western-worship,” “feudal practices,” or “exaggeration,” official documents and news reports (link in Chinese) show….

Even in the PRC, the CCP can overestimate its power to coerce and control.  There has been a tremendous amount of pushback on social media, with netizens heaping scorn on the government's initiative to purge contemporary Chinese of foreign names as over-the-top nationalism.  The prompt pushback led to a quick walkback on the part of official media outlets, such as this one:

"Place name campaign should be prudent, ministry says", by Li Lei (6/22/19)

Telling local governments and businesses to be "prudent" in the application of the government's directive to clamp down on foreign names is only an invitation to greater confusion.  How do you interpret "prudent" with regard to names that are “big, foreign and weird”?


"A Ban on Roman Letter Acronyms?" (4/21/10)

"English Banned in Chinese Writing" (12/23/10)

"Peppa Pig has been purged" (5/2/18)

"Banned in Beijing" (6/4/14)

[h.t. James Fanell, Paul Midler]


  1. cameron said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 11:00 am

    What's the Chinese original expression that's translated as "Western-worship" in the texts above, and how long has that phrase been around? Does it date back to the Cultural Revolution, or is it a more recent coinage?

  2. J Rohsenow said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 11:18 am

    I dimly recall a short story probably written in the 1920s (?) by Lu Xun(?) satirizing a returned scholar who felt that everything Western was better and that China was too backward. And didn't Mao say something about people who felt that "even foreign farts smell sweeter"?
    Of course nothing like that would ever happen back here in the Land of
    "freedom fries".

  3. julie lee said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 2:17 pm

    What's the Chinese original expression that's translated as "Western-worship" …

    Two that come to mind are

    崇洋 (chong2yang2 "worship ocean") and
    媚外 (mei4wai4 “be servile to the foreign") (the numbers stand for tones)

    Sometimes they are used together, as 崇洋媚外 (chongyang meiwai).

    洋 (yang, "ocean") is short for 西洋 (xi1yang2 ,"western ocean"), which stands for the lands beyond the western ocean, or the West.

    外 (wai, "foreign") typically stands for "the West", "Western," meaning Europe and America.

  4. Michael Watts said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    What's the Chinese original expression that's translated as "Western-worship" in the texts above

    I tried to answer this question, and it's left me unimpressed with the English-language reporting. The Quartz article mentioned above is titled China’s weeding out “Western-worship” property names like “Beverly Villa” and “Versailles Garden”.

    That article seems to link to two relevant sources:

    Local governments from at least seven provinces and one autonomous region—Hainan, Guangdong, Fujian, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Shanxi, Shaanxi, and Ningxia—have ordered a number of businesses and residential complexes to “rectify” names that suggest “Western-worship,” “feudal practices,” or “exaggeration,” official documents and news reports (link in Chinese) [1] show.

    In mid-June, authorities told Vienna Hotels Group, a popular hotel chain, to change the names of its 15 branches, because they convey “western-worship,” according to the list (link in Chinese) [2] from Hainan’s civil affairs office.

    Link [1] describes the "洋" rule being enforced as follows: “洋”:指以外国人名、地名命名中国地名,盲目使用外语词及其汉字音译形式命名中国地名,以及用外文拼写中国地名等现象。[洋:indicates the phenomenon of using the name of a foreign person or place to name a Chinese place, blindly using foreign words and/or Chinese characters transcribing their sound to name a Chinese place, and/or using foreign writing to spell the name of a Chinese place, etc.]

    Notably, I don't see mention of worship (I searched for 拜) or of either phrase mentioned by julie lee, there or in the rest of the publication. (It's possible it's somewhere else in there and I didn't find it.)

    Link [2] is even worse. I downloaded the list of names needing to be changed and found the entries for Vienna Hotels. The list is an Excel spreadsheet which associates a reason to every individual entry, and this is the reason given in each entry for Vienna Hotels, in full: 使用外国地名的地名(奥地利的首都)[place name using a foreign place name (the capital of Austria)].

    I'm quite willing to believe that someone somewhere characterized this policy as applying to names indicating "Western-worship" in some Chinese terms for which that translation would be defensible, but Quartz doesn't seem to be able to support that claim.

  5. cameron said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 5:36 pm

    Thanks to julie lee and Michael Watts for trying to elucidate the "Western-worship" expression.

    It reminded me immediately of the famous Persian phrase qarbzadegi. This Persian word is well-known enough to have its own wikipedia page: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gharbzadegi

    I wouldn't have been surprised to learn that a similar expression was part of political discourse in China.

  6. Nicki said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 6:36 pm

    I live in Haikou, the capital of Hainan. This has been all over the news here, and we are all curious to see what will come of it. I'm keeping my eye on "San Diego Plaza", a not very large or imposing apartment complex just up the street from me, which as far as I can tell has absolutely nothing to do with the actual city of San Diego.

  7. jdmartinsen said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 6:47 pm

    @Michael Watts: Take another look at the Hainan Civil Affairs Office's XLS document: it assigns each violation to a category, the most common of which by far is 崇洋媚外.

  8. Victor Mair said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 7:24 pm


    Many thanks!

    chóngyáng mèiwài 崇洋媚外 ("be crazy about foreign things and obsequious to foreigners; be subservient to foreigners; have a servile attitude to foreign things; trumpet servility to things foreign")

    That is exactly what Julie Lee said, so thanks to her as well!

  9. Dave Cragin said,

    June 22, 2019 @ 10:53 pm

    For those who haven't been to China, the common use of Western names for businesses is surprising. If you glance quickly around the inside of a Chinese mall in Beijing, you might not immediately realize it was in China because virtually all of the stores have Western names and these signs are often the most prominent.

  10. Guy_H said,

    June 24, 2019 @ 2:35 am

    In Chinese internet slang (admittedly a different beast these days to ordinary Chinese), this could be expressed as 哈歐美 (ha1 ou1 mei3).
    This can be extended to other cultures e.g. Korean (哈韓) or Japanese (哈日) etc.

  11. BobW said,

    June 25, 2019 @ 3:24 pm

    Back in the bad old Soviet days there was a crime called something like "praise of Western technology." The example I recall is that saying the US had good roads (that's how long ago it was) could get a person in trouble.

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