Peking University and not Beijing University?

Interesting usage note from NBC Olympics coverage

To paraphrase George H.W. Bush, the last time he was in China, the capital of China was Peking and not Beijing. over the past few decades, the Chinese have been gently nudging Westerners towards a more accurate pronunciation of Mandarin Chinese including Nanjing and Beijing for older Anglicized Peking and Nanking. As you can imagine, NBC has been very current in their pronunciation, hence we are definitively at the Beijing Games.

In the women’s marathon, which ran through different parts of Beijing, I was startled to realize that one part of the course ran through Peking University and not Beijing University. It’s not a NBC glitch either, but the official Anglicized name as seen on the English homepage for Peking University. For some reason this institution has maintained the older Peking nomenclature, at least in English. According to Wikipedia, Peking U is called Běijīng Dàxué or Beida in Mandarin Chinese.

Why Peking University?

Why is it still Peking University? I can’t find a quick explanation on the Web, but if I had to speculate, I would say it’s to emphasize the vintage of the University. It was founded in 1898 and was the leading university in China, even before Mao’s revolution (in fact Mao is an alumnus). The older name may be a way to emphasize that the university has a historic pedigree and is one the top universities in China.

On the other hand, Beijing University might seem newer and more involved with various movements of the People’s Republic of China – if one can be so impolite as to mention these issues. Perhaps, Peking University is the best old name for a new and improved type of Chinese university.

From Beijing to Peking

How do you get Peking /pikɪŋ/ from Beijing /bejʒɪŋ/ or [peitʃɪŋ]? There’s a detailed explanation Bill Poser at Language Log , but there are three processes involved.

  1. The vowel “e” was probably misprounced by English speakers following English spelling convention where “e” = /i/, instead of European convention (e.g. Spanish “e” = /e/)
  2. The “B” of “Beijing” is actually an unaspirated /p/ (vs. English aspirated p or [pʰ]). If an English speaker hears a non-aspirated p at the beginning of a word, he or she may confuse it for a /b/).
  3. The most interesting element is the /k/ – Once it really was Beiking [pejkɪŋ], but in Mandarin Chinese, the [k] changed to [tʃ] before /i/ (similar to Latin to Italian). So the /k/ of Peking is either an old pronunciation or more likely, a Cantonese pronunciation (think Hong Kong), where the /k/ was preserved. This also accounts for the Nangking ~ Nanjing pair. It’s an example of an archaic pronuciation being preserved in a foreign language.

It’s amazing what you can learn from one little NBC pronunciation.

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