The game of Go has been in the news lately because of the highly publicised showdown between a grandmaster and AlphaGo, a computer program. This week, we shall explore not the obscure origins of Go but how an ancient Chinese game became known globally by its Japanese name. Weiqi, lamian and chan are relatively unknown outside China whereas their respective Japanese equivalents, Go, ramen and zen, have gained almost global recognition; most people have no idea what xiqu is but the somewhat belittling “Chinese opera” rings a bell immediately.
So, how is it that cultural items that originated in China are known in the rest of the world by their non-Chinese names? Several explanations have been proffered: from the paucity of Chinese “soft power” to project the better aspects of its culture abroad to the low self-esteem among Chinese who believe that a term such as yuxiang rousi (a spicy pork dish) isn’t as worthy to a global audience as ratatouille, bibimbap, pad Thai and satay. Some have blamed it on the Pinyin system of romanisation, developed in the 1950s, whose supposed idiosyncrasies make it hard for foreigners to wrap their tongues around Chinese pronunciations. However, this argument doesn’t hold when one considers how the rest of the world bends over backwards to get the pronunciations of French and Irish names right.
It is probably a confluence of factors – historical, linguistic, cultural and even geopolitical – that makes the world prefer “rice vermicelli” to mifen.