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

 

Good-bye Sweet Oreo?

Why China’s Falling Out of Love With the Oreo

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Now that’s a headline that we surely would never have seen back in the 1980’s and early 1990’s. In those days, Oreos were a prized possession for the foreigner working in China — something that you asked your mom to put in the big box that she shipped to you (surface) in September, in hopes that it might reach you before Christmas. 

Whether it did or not was immaterial; all that mattered was opening the box and finding the (mostly crushed) bag of Oreo cookies. Sometimes we ate them all in one sitting, and sometimes we rationed them.

And there was always the trip to Hong Kong during the Spring Festival holiday to look forward to. Oreos were readily available there and could be shipped back to China quickly and cheaply (or simply stuffed into your suitcase).

Sometimes we could even find imported Oreos at the venerable Friendship Store in Beijing.

In 1996 Nabisco began making and selling Oreos in China, and they quickly became popular. I remember serving one to a Chinese friend once who, after tasting it and examining it carefully, declared “I have an oven at home; I think I can make this.”

I assured her she couldn’t.

According to this article in the Wall Street Journal, the Chinese seem to be falling out of love with the Oreo

Oreo has been one of the country’s most popular cookie brands since it launched in China in 1996, with Mondelez holding the largest market share in China’s biscuit segment at 16%, according to market-research firm Euromonitor International. Cookie sales in China have more than tripled from 2003 to 50.4 billion yuan, or roughly $8.3 billion, last year.

 

But industry watchers say China is one tough cookie, and Mondelez is facing bigger obstacles to growth here. Consumers in the world’s most populous country are curious and willing to try out new things, but that means as more brands enter the market, there are more snacks to distract them from Oreos, said Ben Cavender, a senior analyst at consultancy China Market Research in Shanghai.

 

Mr. Cavender said most companies are finding that Chinese consumers bore easily, so it’s key for food makers to innovate and introduce new brands. ”You have to keep the market constantly hooked,” he said, noting that changing the packaging often isn’t enough.

Oreos losing their popularity in China? Please say it isn’t so!

Image source: Wall Street Journal