Happy Birthday “Beijing”

No, today is not the birthday of the founding of Beijing. That happened too far back in history to be able to pinpoint a date. Recorded history goes back around 4000 years and Peking Man dates back more than 200,000 years.

Qing Tombs

So why wish “Beijing” a “Happy Birthday?”

Well, because it was 36 years ago that the Chinese government decreed that henceforth all Chinese words written in English should use the Pinyin Romanization system instead of the Wade-Giles or Yale systems.

Peking became Beijing.

Canton became Guangzhou.

Mao Tse-tung became Mao Ze-dong.

Chou En-lai became Zhou En-lai.

36 years ago today, the Wall Street Journal published an article announcing and explaining these changes to its confused readers. Here’s how journalist Barry Kramer reported it:

“Foreigners reading about China in their own language may soon be scratching their heads over references to Chinese personalities such as Mao Ze-dong and Jiang Qing, or places such as Zhongqing and Beijing. Beijing’s State Council has taken another step toward simplification of China’s cumbersome written language by ordering that all publications printed in China in English, French, German,  Spanish, and other Roman-alphabet languages use only a standard phonetic transliteration system, called Pinyin, to spell names and places.”

You can read the entire Wall Street Journal article on the Today in WSJ History page here.

I wrote about the difference between Peking and Beijing (spelling, of course) in post back in 2010, explaining that the characters didn’t change, only the approved romanization of the characters:

The more complicated (and accurate) response is that in Chinese it didn’t really change. Before the 1970’s the name of the city in characters was 北京, and those characters are still the name of the city today. What changed in the 1970’s was the official pronunciation of those two characters.

The character 北 means ‘north’ or ‘northern.’ The character 京 means capital, so the two characters together mean ‘northern capital.’ The problem lies in the pronunciation of those two characters. In the dialect of northern China (around Beijing) they are pronounced bei and jing. In Cantonese (the dialect of Guangdong Province and Hong Kong) they are pronounced pe and king. Since written Chinese is ideographic, two people who speak different dialects can look at one character and both will know what means, even though they would pronounce them differently. This is the case with Beijing.

So as I said at the beginning, Happy Birthday “Beijing!”

Related Posts:

Beijing or Peking?

Imagine Learning Chinese without Pinyin

 

Memorial Cookies

As we were milling around the old Orthodox Church in Harbin on Sunday, an older Chinese woman came out of the church with a small bag of cookies in her hand. She came over to where we were standing and offered some to us.

“It’s been12 years since our last priest passed away,” she said. “Here, please eat a cookie to honor his memory.”

A little puzzled, but also a bit hungry, we each took one. Our Russian friends told us that it is a tradition to eat something in commemoration of the death of special people. In this case the special person was Father Zhu, the last Orthodox priest in China.

In some ways, it seems that his death 12 years ago marked the end of era that began when, according to the website Chinese Orthodoxy, the first Orthodox Church was opened in Peking in 1685. It goes on to say that by 1949, there were 106 Orthodox Churches in China, with approximately 10,000 Orthodox followers. Many of those were actually Russians who had fled to China (settling in what was then called Manchuria, but today called Northeast China) in order to escape Bolshevism. Finding themselves once again under Communist rule, most fled China, leaving behind a small number of Chinese believers.

All of the churches were closed during the Cultural Revolution. In the 1980’s when China’s religious policies changed, this church in Harbin, officially called The Church of the Protection of Our Holy Mother of God, was the only Orthodox Church that was re-opened. From what I have been told, and from what I have read, it seems that itis now the only functioning Orthodox Church in the entire country. There is one on the grounds of the Russian embassy in Beijing, but it is technically on Russian soil, not Chinese.  (To read more on the history of Orthodoxy in China, please visit this site: www.chinese.orthodoxy.ru)

I found a section from a book published in 1931 called “Orthodox Churches in Manchuria” that gives quite a bit of information about the church, calling it the Ukranian Parish:

 The Ukrainian parish, together with its church dedicated to the Holy Protection of the Mother of God, was established in 1922, with the authorization and blessing of Archbishop Methodiusof Harbin and Manchuria. […]

 

At first, the church was actually a house church located at the Ukrainian Residence. When this building was taken away from the Ukrainians, the church moved to a basement at B. Avenue, and thus the need came about for building a proper church. The Property Administration answered the requests of the parish and allocated a spot for free belonging to the Old Cemetery, where on June 1, 1930, a marvelous stone church began to be erected according to the project of the civil engineer Y. P. Zhdanov.

 

The church building was finished during the same construction season, and it took only six and a half months for that. It was finally consecrated by Metropolitan Methodius on December 14, 1930. […]

 

At the cemetery many pioneers of the Russian culture lay to rest.

Since it is in the heart of the city today, there is no trace of that cemetery. I do wonder, however, what might have been found when digging for the subway line that is being built underneath the road in front of the church.

I haven’t found any specific information about the bell, though. This past week I have been corresponding with someone I knew in the 1980’s who worked in Harbin and occasionally attended services there. He told me that he once even heard the bell being rung.

Oh… and back to those memorial cookies. It reminded me of the tradition that my family started a few years ago of gathering at a Dairy Queen on the anniversary of my father’s death, where we all raise a Dilly Bar in his honor. That man loved his ice cream!

I also found a website that has old photos of the church from the 1930’s and 1940’s.

Taken from the same spot as my photo above.

This one shows the church set in the cemetery, with the large monument. The steeple down the road was the Lutheran Church. Today it is the Nangang Protestant Church.

There are lots more photos of the church here. (Don’t you just love the internet?)

Beijing in Western Literature

One of my favorite books about my adopted home town, Beijing,  is called Old Peking: City of the Ruler of the World, written by a New Zealand diplomat. It’s a collection of descriptions of Beijing written over the years (from the 1200’s to modern times) written by foreigners.

Some of the more interesting entries are references to the city in western literature. For example, we learn that John Milton, in Paradise Lost, has this to say:

His eye might there command wherever stood

City of old and modern fame, the seat

Of mightiest empire, from the destined walls

Of Cambalu, seat of Cathaian Can

And Samarchand by Oxus, Temir’s throne,

To Paquin of Sineaen kings, and thence

To Agra and Lahor…..

He was a bit confused there, giving the impression that Cambalu and Paquin were two separate cities when in fact those were two different names for the city.

Next time you are at a party and want to impress your friends with some literary trivia, tell them about Beijing in “Paradise Lost.”

“Midnight in Peking” in the US

Last October I wrote about a great murder mystery that I had read called “Midnight in Peking: How the Murder of a Young Englishwoman Haunted the Last Days of Old China,” by Paul French.

At the time it was not yet available in the US. But that has changed with the release last week of the book in the US.

Here is the product description from Amazon:

Peking in 1937 is a heady mix of privilege and scandal, opulence and opium dens, rumors and superstition. The Japanese are encircling the city, and the discovery of Pamela Werner’s body sends a shiver through already nervous Peking. Is it the work of a madman? One of the ruthless Japanese soldiers now surrounding the city? Or perhaps the dreaded fox spirits? With the suspect list growing and clues sparse, two detectives—one British and one Chinese—race against the clock to solve the crime before the Japanese invade and Peking as they know it is gone forever. Can they find the killer in time, before the Japanese invade?

Historian and China expert Paul French at last uncovers the truth behind this notorious murder, and offers a rare glimpse of the last days of colonial Peking.

It’s available in hardcover or a Kindle Edition.

There’s also a great website for the book with a video introduction by the author and lots of background information.

If you like historical fiction, you’ll love this book…..except that it is NOT fiction!