"Tibet" obliterated

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The name "Tibet" has been outlawed in the PRC.  Henceforth, Tibet (the name by which it has been known to the world for centuries) is to be called by its newer Chinese name, Xizang ("West Zang") — even in English. 

Chinese state media drops ‘Tibet’ for ‘Xizang’ after release of Beijing white paper

    Use of the name ‘Xizang’ when referring to the Tibet autonomous region has risen dramatically in English articles by China’s official media
    It comes after the State Council releases a white paper on November 10 which replaced ‘Tibet’ for pinyin term ‘Xizang’ in most instances

Yuanyue Dang, SCMP (12/10/23)

China’s official media has dramatically increased its use of the term “Xizang”, rather than “Tibet”, when referring to the autonomous region in western China in English articles, after a white paper on Tibet was released by China’s cabinet, the State Council, in early November.

The white paper, titled “CPC Policies on the Governance of Xizang in the New Era: Approach and Achievements”, outlines developments in Tibet since President Xi Jinping took power in 2012.

Tibet is the highest region on earth, with an average elevation of 4,380 meters (14,000 ft.).  It constitutes approximately 13% (more than 1/7th) of the entire land area of the PRC.  Neighboring Xinjiang ("New Borders / Frontiers") is about 1/6th of the whole of China, and Inner / Southern Mongolia is more than 1/8th.  Together they comprise over 40% (between 1/3 and 1/2, let's say around 2/5) of the entire land area of the PRC, and all three have problematic sovereignty relationships with China (they are essentially colonies).

I have written about the nomenclature of Tibet numerous times on Language Log and elsewhere.  To refresh our memory, I provide a brief history of the names for the region in question.

The Tibetan name for their land, Bod (བོད་), means 'Tibet' or 'Tibetan Plateau', although it originally meant the central region around Lhasa, now known in Tibetan as Ü (དབུས). The Standard Tibetan pronunciation of Bod ([pʰøʔ˨˧˨]) is transcribed as: Bhö in Tournadre Phonetic Transcription; in the THL Simplified Phonetic Transcription; and Poi in Tibetan pinyin. Some scholars believe the first written reference to Bod ('Tibet') was the ancient Bautai people recorded in the Egyptian-Greek works Periplus of the Erythraean Sea (1st century CE) and Geographia (Ptolemy, 2nd century CE), itself from the Sanskrit form Bhauṭṭa of the Indian geographical tradition.

The modern Standard Chinese exonym for the ethnic Tibetan region is Zangqu (Chinese: 藏区; pinyin: Zàngqū), which derives by metonymy from the Tsang region around Shigatse plus the addition of a Chinese suffix (), which means 'area, district, region, ward'. Tibetan people, language, and culture, regardless of where they are from, are referred to as Zang (Chinese: ; pinyin: Zàng), although the geographical term Xīzàng is often limited to the Tibet Autonomous Region. The term Xīzàng was coined during the Qing dynasty in the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor (1796–1820) through the addition of the prefix (西, 'west') to Zan

The best-known medieval Chinese name for Tibet is Tubo (Chinese: 吐蕃; or Tǔbō, 土蕃 or Tǔfān, 土番). This name first appears in Chinese characters as 土番 in the 7th century (Li Tai) and as 吐蕃 in the 10th century (Old Book of Tang, describing 608–609 emissaries from Tibetan King Namri Songtsen to Emperor Yang of Sui)….

American Tibetologist Elliot Sperling has argued in favor of a recent tendency by some authors writing in Chinese to revive the term Tubote (simplified Chinese: 图伯特; traditional Chinese: 圖伯特; pinyin: Túbótè) for modern use in place of Xizang, on the grounds that Tubote more clearly includes the entire Tibetan plateau rather than simply the Tibet Autonomous Region.

The English word Tibet or Thibet dates back to the 18th century. Historical linguists generally agree that "Tibet" names in European languages are loanwords from Semitic Ṭībat or Tūbātt (Arabic: طيبة، توبات; Hebrew: טובּה, טובּת), itself deriving from Turkic Töbäd (plural of töbän), literally 'The Heights'.


There is a much longer and more complete Wikipedia article on the "Etymology of Tibet", with full coverage of names in English, Tibetan, Chinese, and other languages.

I still stand by my derivation of Tibet from Stod-bod (pronounced Tö-bhöt) "High/Upper Tibet" from the autonym Bod.  See Victor H. Mair, "Tufan and Tulufan:  The Origins of the Old Chinese Names for Tibet and Turfan."  Central and Inner Asian Studies, 4 (1990), 14-70, followed by Andreas Gruschke (2001).

FWIW, I will continue to call Tibet "Tibet", and I will continue to call Massachusetts "Massachusetts", not something like "Bostonia" < "St. Botolph".


Selected readings


  1. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 8:37 am

    After one, all-too-short, visit, I love Tibet and I love the Tibetan people. And, like, Victor, I will continue to call (and think of) Tibet as "Tibet", and will challenge anyone who refers to it as 西藏 ("Xīzàng") in my presence.

  2. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 10:13 am

    Poking around the google books corpus, one can find in older English texts instances of the Wade-Giles version of "Xizang," i.e. [H/h]si-tsang, although they mostly-to-exclusively seem to be intended as transliterations of some Sinitic word or phrase, not as an "English" toponym. E.g. this from a 1972-published book describing events circa 1709: "But the imperial enjoy was not backed by Chinese troops in Lhasa, and was thus depending on the goodwill of Lajang Khan, in spite of his pompous official title of administrator of Tibetan affairs (kuan-li hsi-tsang shih-wu …)."

  3. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 10:14 am

    [Sorry. The word "enjoy" in the prior comment should be read as a damnyouautocorrect variant spelling of "envoy."]

  4. David Marjanović said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 10:41 am

    Funnily enough, a pedantic case can be made for not referring to the Supposedly Autonomous Region as "Tibet". The pre-1950 country, as well as the culturally Tibetan region (with people recognized by the PRC as ethnic Tibetans) and even the (smaller) region where Tibetan languages are spoken, contain(ed) not just all of Xīzàng, but also close to half of Qīnghǎi and Sìchuān. The "Xī" part is there for a reason.

  5. Peter B. Golden said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 11:26 am

    Cultural genocide continued.

    In Old Turkic (cf. the Kül Tegin and Bilge Qaghan inscriptions) it appears as Töpöt in a listing of peoples (Bükli Čö[l]üg ėl [Korea], Tawğač [China], Purum [East Rome/Byzantium, Qïrqïz et al.)

    Chris Beckwith, “The Chinese Names of the Tibetans, Tabghatch, and Turks” Archivum Eurasiae Medii Aevi 14 (2005): 5-20, see pp. 5-8 for discussion of 吐蕃 Tu-fan (EMC thɔ’puan, Pulleyblank: 312, 89) and 禿髮 Tu-fa (EMC thǝwkpuat, Pulleyblank: 311, 89), concludes that Tu-fan “Tibet” is probably to be connected with Xianbei Tu-fa. “[b]oth are ultimately transcriptions of a dialect form *thâɣpat of the name” Tuoba. “The name itself long predates its application to Tibet, with which place it originally had no connection.”

  6. Peter Grubtal said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 11:50 am

    Well, you've all fallen in with Beijing instead of Peking, something impossible to articulate or remember instead of Canton, and legion others, and rendered the geography of China a blank for most English speakers.

    You've accepted for decades now that the regimes of non-English speaking countries can dictate what geographic names are to be in our language: It's a bit late in the day to make an issue of this.

  7. Chris Button said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 12:30 pm

    Any thoughts on the Tǔbō versus Tǔfān readings? I know Pulleyblank viewed the former as spurious (i.e. a modern distortion).

  8. Philip Taylor said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 1:05 pm

    Peter G. — I have would have no problem whatsoever with the Tibetans asking the rest of the world to call their country by a particular name; my problem is with the fact that it is not the Tibetans but an occupying power that is seeking to dictate what the country’s name should be. And I would respectfully suggest that Guǎngzhōu is neither harder to articulate nor to remember than Canton.

  9. J.W. Brewer said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 1:33 pm

    Philip Taylor may fail to appreciate that the residents of mainland China "proper" are currently likewise subject to the arbitrary rule of an occupying power, the very same one that currently occupies Tibet (and Inner Mongolia, and Sinkiang/East-Turkestan etc.). Peter Grubtal reminds me that I was just thinking to myself the other day about whether it would seem too affected to try to stick with Peiping over Peking, since the latter might be thought to implicitly concede the legitimacy of the de facto post-1949 regime's relocation of the official capital there from Nanking.

  10. Victor Mair said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 2:02 pm

    @David Marjanović

    That's not funny! That's what Greater Tibet used to be.

    The current Dalai Lama, the 14th, was born in the village of Taktser in Amdo (Qinghai).

  11. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 13, 2023 @ 5:58 pm

    Diao Luzi (調露子) in his Jueli ji (角力記) "Jueli (Wrestling) Records" from the Song Dynasty (宋), while talking about a Sui period Tibetan wrestling champion uses Xifan (西番).

  12. Lucas Christopoulos said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 2:09 am

    my mistake…, Xifan (西番) was indeed coming from the PRC Chinese Historian, and author of the book comments not from Diao Luzi.

  13. Victor Mair said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 7:38 am

    @Chris Button (apud Pulleyblank), Peter B. Golden (apud Beckwith), et al. who are in a quandary over the autonym of the Tibetans, see the penultimate paragraph of the o.p. and the article by Andreas Gruschke (2001) which follows it.

  14. Lameen said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 9:37 am

    Turkic "Töbäd (plural of töbän)"? How does that work? Doesn't look like any Turkic plural marker I've ever heard of…

  15. Mark Metcalf said,

    December 14, 2023 @ 5:26 pm

    Global Times seemingly introduces a quandry regarding the new "Xizang" edict. In an article entitled "Tibetan dice games bridge past, present" the author consistently refers to the region as "Xizang", but refers to the people, language, and cultural practices of the region as "Tibetan."

    Wouldn't "Xizangian" be more consistent?


  16. AntC said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 2:55 am

    The term Xīzàng was coined during the Qing dynasty in the reign of the Jiaqing Emperor

    sentenced Europeans to death for spreading Catholicism among Han Chinese and Manchus. Christians who would not repent their conversion were sent to Muslim cities in Xinjiang, to be given as slaves to Muslim leaders and beys. [wp, again]

    Also refused the Vietnamese their preferred name.

    Sounds like a thoroughly disagreeable s.o.b.

    BTW before anybody gets on too high a horse, 'Wales/Welsh' means vaguely West-ish. As imposed by another occupying power, against the self-preferred 'Cymru'.

  17. Andreas Johansson said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 10:30 am

    "Wales/Welsh" doesn't mean western, it's from an old Germanic term for the Latin-and Celtic speaking populations of the Roman empire, originally probably from the name of the Volcae, a Gaulish tribe.

  18. Philip Anderson said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 2:07 pm

    Andreas Johansson is correct; although ‘Welsh’ is often translated as ‘foreign’, it wasn’t used for any foreigners (and in Britain the British were the natives).
    Although Cymru (the country) and Cymry (the people) are the names in Welsh, even Welsh speakers use Wales and Welsh when speaking English – some people, often Americans, use the Welsh names in English, but it seems odd.

  19. Mehmet Oguz Derin said,

    December 15, 2023 @ 8:42 pm


    The -t (and sometimes -z, which some Turkic languages realize in a manner quite similar to -d in pronunciation) usually goes under "Collective Markers" in treatises rather than plurals, though the function is close.

  20. David Marjanović said,

    December 18, 2023 @ 2:57 pm

    it wasn’t used for any foreigners

    Outside of English it very much was; in German for example, welsch (now obsolete) meant "Italian", "French" or both depending on context.

  21. Mark Metcalf said,

    January 6, 2024 @ 9:14 am

    An article on this matter in today's WSJ:

    China Doesn’t Want You to Say ‘Tibet’ Anymore


  22. Dhruv said,

    January 18, 2024 @ 6:56 am

    Here is a draft blog comment in simple wording about Tibet:

    This is very sad to read. It seems Tibet's identity and rich cultural history is being systematically destroyed. So many monasteries, temples and other heritage sites have been torn down over the decades. The Chinese government seems intent on wiping away what makes Tibet unique.

    I cannot imagine how difficult it must be for the Tibetan people to watch their sacred sites and traditions fade away. An entire generation is growing up not knowing what came before or how vibrant these communities once were. It's heartbreaking.

    I hope the world wakes up to what's happening in Tibet. We cannot be silent. We must speak up and protect those without a voice from having their home and culture stripped away after thousands of years. I sincerely hope the Tibetan way of life and spiritual practices can be preserved before they are erased from history completely. This kind of loss impacts us all.

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