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Pinyin's rise fuels dispute over what's in a name

PUBLISHED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 23 July, 2012, 12:00am


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A debate is growing in cyberspace about a trend that has seen more mainland universities adopt pinyin - romanised versions of Mandarin script - for the official English translations of their names in recent years, with some people hailing the trend as a good reflection of China's rise, while others dismiss it as cosmetic.

Citing questions from some online commentators, The Beijing News reported yesterday that English name changes by well-known universities, particularly ones that cater mainly to students from ethnic minority groups, might not accurately reflect a university's features.

The prestigious Minzu University in Beijing was formerly known as the Central University for Nationalities before it became among the first to change its name in December 2008, a few months after Beijing hosted the Summer Olympics.

Yesterday's report about the growing trend quickly triggered a discussion about whether the inclusion of pinyin in English translations, to promote national pride or cultural identity, could come at the price of getting's the school's message across, simply for the sake of having a pinyin translation.

No one at Minzu was available for comment yesterday. The university has never offered an explanation for why it decided to go with pinyin.

Another example is the use of 'Hanban' for the pinyin abbreviation of the Chinese National Office for Teaching Chinese as a Foreign Language - a Ministry of Education office that oversees Confucius Institutes worldwide. The institutes promote Chinese language and culture. Some analysts say the change has reflected a growing consciousness in the international community of a rising China.

Five years ago, the former Southern Yangtze University in Wuxi , Jiangsu province , heeded a call from alumni and teachers to change its name to Jiangnan University.

The former Guizhou University for Nationalities, in Guiyang , Guizhou province followed suit in May of this year, changing its name to Guizhou Minzu University, saying the switch was to 'follow a trend in China'.

'Because of China's rising strength, many universities and major Chinese businesses have chosen to have a Chinese element in their English names,' the university explained.

The university also said that it was concerned that the word 'nationality' in its former name may have been confusing, as it had connotations reflecting both race and the legal status of citizens.

One commentator supported the use of pinyin in the translation of names for places or institutions, in order to reflect some national or cultural elements.

However, a commentator named Weiyang Wolong wrote on the popular internet forum that China's rise should be demonstrated by the country's great strides in science and technology, and in improvements to people's lives, not by pinyin.

'If the use of pinyin is really a symbol of the country's rising profile, why not skip translating it at all, instead of writing it in pinyin?' Weiyang asked on the forum.