Aggressive Chinese toponymy

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According to the CCP, India's northeastern state of Arunachal Pradesh is now part of the PRC's "South Tibet", in other words, of China, so is to be named "Zangnan" — says nobody except the PRC.

India rejected China's renaming of about 30 places in its northeastern Himalayan state of Arunachal Pradesh on Tuesday, calling the move "senseless" and reaffirming that the border province is an "integral" part of India.

Beijing says Arunachal Pradesh, which its calls Zangnan, is a part of South Tibet – a claim New Delhi has repeatedly dismissed. China similarly ratcheted up tensions a year ago by giving Chinese names to 11 locations in the state.

Troops of the nuclear-armed neighbours engaged in minor scuffles along their disputed frontier in the state in Dec. 2022, and tensions eased after extensive military and diplomatic talks.

Yet the state is frequently the cause of friction between the Asian giants whose ties have nosedived since a bloody border clash between their troops in the western Himalayas in 2020.

China, in a statement on Saturday, said it had standardised the names of about 30 places in what it calls South Tibet, "in accordance with the relevant regulations on place name management of the State Council".

"Assigning invented names will not alter the reality that Arunachal Pradesh is, has been, and will always be an integral and inalienable part of India," foreign ministry spokesperson Randhir Jaiswal said on Tuesday.

On Monday, Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar told reporters that "changing names will not do anything".

"If I change the name of your house, does it become my house?" he said.

Last month, following a visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi to the state to inaugurate infrastructure projects, China had said it was opposed to his activities in the region. India termed the arguments "baseless".

The U.S. also weighed in on the issue, saying it recognised Arunachal Pradesh as Indian territory and "strongly opposed" any unilateral attempts to make claims on it by military or civilian "incursion or encroachments".

China had opposed these remarks, saying the matter "has nothing to do with the U.S.".

India and China share a 3,800 km (2,400 mile) border – much of it poorly demarcated – over which they also fought a bloody war in 1962.

Twenty Indian soldiers and four Chinese troops were killed in hand-to-hand combat in 2020, prompting both countries to fortify positions and deploy extra troops and equipment along the border.

(Reporting by Sakshi Dayal; Additional reporting by Bernard Orr in Beijing; Editing by YP Rajesh and Michael Perry)

As the brilliant Indian Foreign Minister Subrahmanyam Jaishankar quipped, "If I change the name of your house, does it become my house?"


Selected readings

[Thanks to AntC]


  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 2, 2024 @ 10:47 am

    There's a different disputed area further west and north which is formally claimed by India but has been de facto controlled for many decades by the PRC. I don't know whether the Indians have maps of that area with their own preferred rival toponyms, but I wouldn't find it particularly surprising if they do.

  2. David Marjanović said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 9:37 am

    How does the grammar work – does Zángnán mean "south of Tibet"?

  3. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 11:36 am

    @David Marjanović

    In terms of syntax, ambiguous in this and parallel cases between '[region located] DIRECTION of REFERENCE NOUN' and 'DIRECTION-ly [subregion of] REFERENCE NOUN', with resolution from nature of REFERENCE NOUN, or broader context, or pragmatics/convention.

    many modern PRC province names take this 'telescoped postpositional phrase' form where only the former interpretation is reasonable (Hebei 河北 'north of the (Yellow) River', etc.)…

    famously Yuenan 越南 (Mandarin for 'Vietnam') is considered to be a reversal of and thus equivalent to earlier Nan Yue 南越 'Southern Yue', but the interpretation 'south of Yue' is totally cromulent…

    Even more explicit postpositional phrases of this kind can be ambiguous, e.g., an online look confirms that 'Meiguo de nanbian' 美国的南边 is generally used to mean 'south of the United States' but can also mean 'the American south'.

    so in the case of Zàngnán 藏南, 'south of Tibet' is a totally legit interpretation… but facts as the PRC have them of course have it meaning 'South(ern) Tibet'.

  4. AntC said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 7:10 pm

    Thanks @Johnathan, so the same ambiguity arises with (Eng) 'South China Sea', (Putonghua) 南海; Nánhǎi [see wikip for long and varied etymologies]

    Sea to the South of China vs China's South(ern) Sea.

    Thanks to PRC's aggression, we now have other states bordering that body of water making the same grab: West Philippine Sea, Vietnam East Sea, North Natuna Sea (Natuna islands within Indonesia), …

  5. Jonathan Smith said,

    April 3, 2024 @ 7:45 pm


    well Nanhai 南海 is unambiguously attribute + noun 'South Sea' or 'Southern Sea'… inherent point of view being yes China.

    Re: "South *China* Sea", AFAIK this is a European thing… i.e., it's the West's fault that this designation can now be presented in Chinese as "Nan Zhongguo hai" 南中国海" and regarded as the 'international standard'…

  6. J.W. Brewer said,

    April 4, 2024 @ 10:43 am

    Of course, "Arunachal Pradesh" is just as much of an imperialist exonym as "Zangnan." The traditional local folks in the area in dispute speak various Tibeto-Burman languages and the only Indic speakers are recent colonial settlers taking advantage of the New Delhi regime's rule of the area. To the extent the area formally in dispute is too small to be self-governing, it would make sense on shared historical/linguistic/cultural/religious/etc. grounds for it to be part of Bhutan – the only reason it's now part of India is because the British were expanding their territory beyond culturally "Indian" areas for various practical realpolitik reasons, they negotiated a border based on realpolitik considerations with the authorities in then functionally-independent Lhasa (w/o formal ratification from the then-authorities in Peking), and independent India then inherited and enforced the British imperial claim. Now, it's certainly much better in any number of respects to be a colonial subject of the present regime in New Delhi than of the present regime in Beijing, but the status quo is not somehow "natural" as opposed to the outgrowth of historical contingency and power politics.

    The traditional Tibetan toponym for the region (which may also have included much of Bhutan and Sikkim) is apparently Monyul, but I don't know if that subjectively feels like an endonym rather than just another exonym to those who currently live there.

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