Capital was never renamed

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 October, 1998, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 October, 1998, 12:00am

Barry Girling is quite wrong to accuse Chris Patten of having a 'mischievous obsession' about Peking (letter, South China Morning Post, October 22).

This is an English word for a foreign place. It has precisely the same status as the word China. There is no earthly reason why English people (or speakers of any language other than Mandarin) should call Peking Beijing. Even the Cantonese do not.

There is no comparison with calling Harare Salisbury and Zimbabwe Rhodesia. Rhodesia formally changed its name to Zimbabwe and the name of its capital to Harare when self-rule was established.

With the exception of the brief period of Nationalist supremacy, when it was referred to as 'Beiping', Peking has been known as 'Beijing' in Mandarin for as long as it has been the northern capital of China.

Throughout the modern historical period it has been known as Peking in English. Calling the place 'Beijing' in English only became common after the Nixon visit to China in 1972 and then principally in the US.

Much of the usage of 'Beijing' sprang from the mistaken belief that the capital had been renamed. It had not been.

No nation should force another to change its own language.

It would be as absurd for China to insist that Peking be called Beijing as it would be for the English to insist the French call Londres London, or for the Italians to insist the English call Florence Firenze.

It would be interesting to see the reaction of Cantonese speakers were the Chinese Government to insist 'Beijing' be used in Cantonese, or, indeed, more pertinently, that in future Hong Kong be called 'Xiang Gang'.

In the long term, Beijing may become the more commonly accepted name for the capital of China, but that is a different issue.

When it comes to right and wrong rather than 'petty debating points', those who call the Chinese capital Peking are doing nothing different to those who refer to the country as China rather than 'Zhong Guo'.