Sun Yat-sen, Chiang Kai-shek, Mao Zedong

« previous post | next post »

Under the rubric, "An Odd Question", Doug Adams (the Tocharianist) asked:

Why do we always refer to Sun Yat-sen (1866-1925) and Chiang Kai-shek (1887-1975) in Cantonese (?) phonological form rather than Mandarin?

Simple reply

Before about 1975, Cantonese was by far the most widespread and prevalent Sinitic language around the world outside of China, and Sun's Cantonese art name, Yat-sen, was so deeply ingrained and familiar in English for decades — both in speech and in writing — that it would have been very difficult to change it to Mandarin Yìxiān 逸仙 ("Liberated Transcendent").  Anyway, he had many other different names for different purposes, and some of them were as popular as Yat-sen, e.g., Chung-shan / Zhongshan, which actually derives from a Japanese pseudonym / nom de guerre (Nakayama Kikori [see below]) given to him by a Japanese friend.  Chung-shan / Zhongshan 中山 was / is so widespread in China that his hometown was renamed after it, making Zhongshan one of the few cities in China to be named after a person.  Zhongshan is also used as the name of the style of jacket that Sun Yat-sen liked to wear:  Zhongshan suit (simplified Chinese: 中山装; traditional Chinese: 中山裝; pinyin: Zhōngshān zhuāng), but in the PRC it came to be known as the Mao suit.  (I'm the proud owner of a Zhongshan suit, which I had tailor made in Taipei in 1971.)  There are dozens of other things and places called Zhongshan in China, a few of them referring to states from much earlier times that are completely unrelated to Sun Yat-sen / Zhongshan, for which see here.

Details and data

Sun's genealogical name was Sun Deming (Syūn Dāk-mìhng; 孫德明). As a child, his pet name was Tai Tseung (Dai-jeuhng; 帝象). When in school, the teacher gave him the name Sun Wen (Cantonese: Syūn Màhn; 孫文), which was what Sun called himself for most of his life. Sun's courtesy name was Zaizhi (Jai-jī; 載之), and his baptized name [VHM:  N.B.] was Rixin (Yaht-sān; 日新). While at school in Hong Kong he got the art name Yat-sen (Chinese: 逸仙; pinyin: Yìxiān). Sūn Zhōngshān (孫中山; Cantonese: syūn jūng sāan, romanized Chung Shan), the most popular of his Chinese names in China, is derived from his Japanese name Kikori Nakayama (中山樵), the pseudonym given to him by Tōten Miyazaki while in hiding in Japan. His birthplace city was renamed Zhongshan in his honour probably shortly after his death in 1925, using this name. Zhongshan is one of the few cities named after people in China.


A similar situation obtains for Chiang Kai-shek (Mand. Pinyin Jiǎng Jièshí) 蔣介石 / 蒋介石, but is even more complicated, because, although the form of his name as he is known to the world is Cantonese, Chiang Kai-shek was a native speaker of Wu / Zhejiangese / Chekiangese, whose koiné dialect is Shanghainese.

Like many other Chinese historical figures, Chiang used several names throughout his life. The name inscribed in the genealogical records of his family is Chiang Chou-t‘ai (Chinese: 蔣周泰; pinyin: Jiǎng Zhōutài; Wade–Giles: Chiang3 Chou1-t‘ai4). This so-called "register name" (譜名) is the one by which his extended relatives knew him, and the one he used in formal occasions, such as when he got married. In deference to tradition, family members did not use the register name in conversation with people outside of the family. The concept of a "real" or original name is / was not as clear-cut in China as it is in the Western world. In honour of tradition, Chinese families waited a number of years before officially naming their children. In the meantime, they used a "milk name" (rǔmíng 乳名), given to the infant shortly after his birth and known only to the close family. So the name that Chiang received at birth was Chiang Jui-yüan (Chinese: 蔣瑞元; pinyin: Jiǎng Ruìyuán).

In 1903, the 16-year-old Chiang went to Ningpo to be a student, and he chose a "school name" (xuémíng 學名). This was the formal name of a person, used by older people to address him, and the one he would use the most in the first decades of his life (as the person grew older, younger generations would have to use one of the courtesy names instead). Colloquially, the school name is called "big name" (大名), whereas the "milk name" is known as the "small name" (小名). The school name that Chiang chose for himself was Zhiqing (Chinese: 志清; Wade–Giles: Chi-ch‘ing, which means "purity of aspirations"). For the next fifteen years or so, Chiang was known as Jiang Zhiqing (Wade-Giles: Chiang Chi-ch‘ing). This is the name by which Sun Yat-sen knew him when Chiang joined the republicans in Kwangtung in the 1910s.

In 1912, when Jiang Zhiqing was in Japan, he started to use the name Chiang Kai-shek (Chinese: 蔣介石; pinyin: Jiǎng Jièshí; Wade–Giles: Chiang3 Chieh4-shih2) as a pen name for the articles that he published in a Chinese magazine he founded: Voice of the Army (Jūn shēng 軍聲). Jieshi is the Pinyin romanization of this name, based on Mandarin, but the most recognized romanized rendering is Kai-shek which is in Cantonese romanization. Because the Republicans were based in Canton (a Cantonese-speaking area, now known as Guangdong), Chiang (who never spoke Cantonese) became known by Westerners under the Cantonese romanization of his courtesy name, while the family name as known in English seems to be the Mandarin pronunciation of his Chinese family name, transliterated in Wade-Giles.

"Kai-shek"/"Jieshi" soon became Chiang's courtesy name (). Some think the name was chosen from the classic Chinese book the I Ching; "介于石"; '"[he who is] firm as a rock"', is the beginning of line 2 of Hexagram 16, "yù ". Others note that the first character of his courtesy name is also the first character of the courtesy name of his brother and other male relatives on the same generation line, while the second character of his courtesy name shi (—meaning "stone") suggests the second character of his "register name" tai (—the famous Mount Tai). Courtesy names in China often bore a connection with the personal name of the person. As the courtesy name is the name used by people of the same generation to address the person, Chiang soon became known under this new name.

Sometime in 1917 or 1918, as Chiang became close to Sun Yat-sen, he changed his name from Jiang Zhiqing to Jiang Zhongzheng (Chinese: 蔣中正; pinyin: Jiǎng Zhōngzhèng). By adopting the name Chung-cheng ("central uprightness"), he was choosing a name very similar to the name of Sun Yat-sen, who was (and still is) known among Chinese as Zhongshan (中山—meaning "central mountain"), thus establishing a link between the two. The meaning of uprightness, rectitude, or orthodoxy, implied by his name, also positioned him as the legitimate heir of Sun Yat-sen and his ideas. It was readily accepted by members of the Chinese Nationalist Party and is the name under which Chiang Kai-shek is still commonly known in Taiwan. However, the name was often rejected by the Chinese Communists and is not as well known in mainland China. Often the name is shortened to "Chung-cheng" only ("Zhongzheng" in Pinyin). Many public places in Taiwan are named Chungcheng after Chiang. For many years passengers arriving at the Chiang Kai-shek International Airport were greeted by signs in Chinese welcoming them to the "Chung Cheng International Airport". Similarly, the monument erected to Chiang's memory in Taipei, known in English as Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall, was literally named "Chung Cheng Memorial Hall" in Chinese. In Singapore, Chung Cheng High School was named after him.

His name is also written in Taiwan as "The Late President Honorable Chiang" (Xiān zǒngtǒng   Jiǎng gōng 先總統 蔣公), where the one-character-wide space in front of his name known as nuo tai shows respect. He is often called Honorable Chiang (Jiǎng gōng 蔣公) (without the title or space).

In this context, his surname "Chiang" in this article is spelled using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration for Standard Chinese as opposed to Hanyu Pinyin (which is spelled as "Jiang") though the latter was adopted by the ROC government in 2009 as its official romanization.


The situation with Mao Zedong is different.  Before the founding of the PRC and during the early years of the PRC, he was referred to in English as Mao Tse-tung  (1893-1976), the Mandarin pronunciation of his name.  Mao was a speaker of Hunanese / Xiāng 湘, one of the seven major topolects of Sinitic, which is not mutually intelligible with Mandarin.  While having produced a number of important figures in modern Chinese history, landlocked in the south and with less than forty million population, Hunan does not have the linguistic clout of Canton / Guangzhou.

During Mao's lifetime, the English-language media universally rendered his name as Mao Tse-tung, using the Wade-Giles system of transliteration for Standard Chinese though with the circumflex accent in the syllable Tsê dropped. Due to its recognizability, the spelling was used widely, even by the Foreign Ministry of the PRC after Hanyu Pinyin became the PRC's official romanisation system for Mandarin Chinese in 1958; the well-known booklet of Mao's political statements, The Little Red Book, was officially entitled Quotations from Chairman Mao Tse-tung in English translations. While the pinyin-derived spelling Mao Zedong is increasingly common, the Wade-Giles-derived spelling Mao Tse-tung continues to be used in modern publications to some extent.


Despite the plethora of names for Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, the Cantonese pronunciations of their main names in English have persisted up to the present time, no attempt has been made to represent the Hunanese pronunciation of Mao Tse-tung / Mao Zedong in Hunanese.


Selected readings


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 4:20 pm

    Maybe 5 years ago I visited the CKS mausoleum in Cihu, with its legendarily surreal garden full of 100+ statues of CKS that had been evicted from their prior pedestals elsewhere in Taiwan. Almost all the romanized text on the site was in some romanization system that was neither hanyu pinyin or wade-giles (or the "bastardized" wade-giles common in Taiwan). I expect it may have been tongyong pinyin, with the CKS loyalists who ran the place not having joined in with the KMT's subsequent switch of allegiances to hanyu. The level of uniformity-of-system itself seemed at variance with the cacophonous coexistence of rival systems one frequently sees elsewhere in Taiwan.

  2. John Rohsenow said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 4:22 pm

    I often remark on the preservation of these 'traditional' spellings when
    doing crossword puzzles in English, as you note, often not even 'standard' Wade-Giles spelling, and almost never standard Hanyu Pinyin.

  3. DCA said,

    February 1, 2022 @ 10:57 pm

    I bought a Mao suit in Shanghai in 1981 (very early US vistor ptrogram). The shop was happy to get rid of what was a hopelessly large size, and I liked having the wide sleeves and multiple pockets. Alas, it doesn't fit as well as it once did.

  4. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 9:08 am

    John Rohsenow

    What I remark on is the non-use of 'traditional' (to adopt your quotes) spellings. They after all reflect a time-hallowed usage, have become in fact the English name of the place/person, are usually easier for the man-on-the-Clapham omnibus to articulate, because they correspond largely with standard English spelling, and don't make all the accumulated maps and literature of the centuries redundant.

    Why, because some, usually authoritarian government, says "from now on he/our city/country is called this in English", academics, media people and those who love to seize on anything modish and try to make it the new norm, fall over each other to impose it (often with lamentable success) on the English speaking world defeats me. [end of rant]
    You seem keen to root out the last recalcitrants, but at least, please, leave our crossword compilers alone: they know and respect their public.

  5. languagehat said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 10:54 am

    Why, because some, usually authoritarian government, says "from now on he/our city/country is called this in English", academics, media people and those who love to seize on anything modish and try to make it the new norm, fall over each other to impose it (often with lamentable success) on the English speaking world defeats me.

    You're singin' my song. I've never understood this and have been ranting about it for many years.

  6. Alexander Browne said,

    February 2, 2022 @ 2:57 pm

    Peter Grubtal & languagehat: You heard it's Türkiye now, right?

  7. Terpomo said,

    February 3, 2022 @ 7:59 pm

    I remember a commenter on reddit compared refusing to use endonyms if the local government demanded it to misgendering… *sigh* Actually, though, the discussion in general was pretty interesting, I think it deserves linking here.

  8. liuyao said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 1:06 am

    I’d add that Chinese mostly do have one, unambiguous official name (名 ming, or 諱 = taboo; other names don’t become taboo), and you can tell because that’s the name that they’d be referred to in official documents (memorials, biographies, etc.), and that they’d publish their collection of verse under, along with one 號. Rarely do people change their name in adulthood. In Republican era, many "went by their courtesy name" (以字行), but both Sun and Chiang would still sign with their ming (孫文, 蔣中正). The Communists started dropping their 字 (if they had any) altogether, and continued to use 字 for some Nationalists, e.g. 蒋介石, 汪精衛 (兆銘), 吳稚暉 (敬恆), 張静江 (人傑). Not using 中正 may have been a deliberate factor but it’s a wider practice.

  9. Tom Dawkes said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 8:25 am

    Thank you for a really interesting article on this tricky matter. One question: what would Mao’s name be in Hunanese?

  10. John Swindle said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 3:58 pm

    Then there are the English pronunciations. American English "mousey tongue" may be slowly yielding to something a little closer to a Mandarin pronunciation. Pronunciations of the "Chiang" in "Chiang Kai-shek" remain more various. I'm sticking to "shang" [ʃæŋ] since I've had it from childhood.

  11. Philip Taylor said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 3:39 am

    John — I knew of Chiang Kai-Shek about 50 years before I started learning Mandarin Chinese, and I remember it as being pronounced as bi-syllabic /tʃi æŋ/ in the U.K. at that time, as in "Chiang Mai". The LPD states that it is (or "should be" — is the LPD prescriptive or descriptive ? ) monosyllabic / ˌtʃæŋ/.

  12. Andreas Johansson said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 1:42 am

    I remember a hilarious(?) childhood joke of referring to Mao as "Mao Sehr Tung", where sehr is German for "very" and tung is Swedish for "heavy".

  13. Rodger C said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 10:34 am

    When I was a boy in WV, politicians called him Mayo C. Tongue.

RSS feed for comments on this post