Railways ministry orders English words to be replaced by pinyin

Ministry orders rail authorities to replace English directional references with pinyin

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 September, 2012, 2:07pm

The Ministry of Railways has ordered all railways to replace any directional words in English station names, such as "east" or "west", with their Chinese equivalents, sparking a heated debate over how to best preserve the language and cater to foreigners.

Directional words will now appear in romanised pinyin text alongside station names, without English translation.

For example, the station previously known as Bejing West - the largest railway hub in Asia - will now appear as Beijingxi Railway Station on signs and tickets, xi being the Chinese word for "west".

The directive was distributed to regional rail authorities by the ministry's Bureau of Transportation on August 20 and uploaded to Baidu's Wenku document archive by an internet user. The document did not provide a reason for the change.

The ministry's press office confirmed the directive but declined to comment. Beijing's subway and bus companies, who have to adapt to the change, also would not comment.

In addition to being confronted with potentially unfamiliar Chinese words, English speakers may face confusion stemming from the bureau's decision not to set a deadline for sign changes. Tickets were expected to be printed with the new names starting on September 1.

Chen Xiaotao, a resident of Beijing's Chaoyang district, said that she was concerned for foreign friends who may come to visit her.

"It can drive them nuts if their ticket says 'Beijingxi' but the bus stop says 'Beijing West'," Chen said. "The rail ministry has no power to make the bus or subway companies change the signs. This can cost lots of money."

Most signs in the capital's major railway stations had already been changed, according to The Beijing News, although signs in other parts of the city, such as subway stations and bus stops, were still using the old names.

The directive caused a heated debate on the internet, with most comments - surprisingly considering the low public opinion of the scandal-racked railway agency - siding with the ministry.

"When I was travelling in France I did not see a road sign with an English translation," wrote one Sina user who from Qingdao , Shandong province. "We should also use pinyin instead of English to defend our own language from the invasion of foreign culture."

Another internet user from Hefei , Anhui province, wrote: "Any patriotic Chinese should support the change."

But others questioned the wisdom of such a change as China tries to attract more foreign tourists and investors.

"English is the most popular language," a user from Shanghai wrote. "We are stepping backwards if it is replaced by pinyin."

Some language experts supported the ministry's decision.

"From a linguistic point of view, I think it is a good idea," said Hu Xiumei , an associate professor with Beijing Normal University's Institute of Chinese Language and Culture. "When a foreigner speaks to a Beijing cab driver, 'Beijingxi' is more useful than 'Beijing West'."