Yibin? Suifu? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

During our two days here in the town of Yibin, we have been trying to solve a couple of things that have been puzzling us about the life and work if Esther Nelson.  The first is….what was her Chinese name? Everywhere we go, people have been asking us what her Chinese name was, and unfortunately, we can only shrug our shoulder and say ‘we don’t know.’  This morning, as we were poring over the picture book that Noel made from Esther’s photo albums, Mr. B (our friend/guide) suddenly noticed a photo of Esther with one of her nursing classes. Across the top of the photo was an inscription saying that the photo was taken at a farewell function for Esther before she left for one of her furloughs. It had been there all the time, but none of us had noticed it before!

That proved a help to us later in the morning when the local pastor turned up with a document listing all of those who had worked in the schools and hospitals run by the Baptists before 1949.  Her name was on it.

 The second big mystery was why, in her letters, she sometimes called the name of this town Yibin, and other times Suifu.  Furthermore, all of the photos that we have of the hospital and school where she worked were labeled as being in the town of Suifu. In poring over our maps the past few weeks, we could not find a town named Suifu.  About an hour away there is a town named Shuifu (similar spelling to Suifu), so we figured that must have been the town she was referring to.

 However, Mr. B’s contacts in the area found no evidence that any foreigners had ever worked in Shuifu, and certainly they had not established hospitals or schools there. The only schools and hospitals established by the Baptists, we were assured, were here in the city of Yibin.

 Then why were the photos of the schools and hospitals all labeled as being in Suifu?  That question has been driving us nuts!

Today we found the answer from an unlikely source: the Communist Party General Secretary of the Number 2 People’s Hospital of Yibin. It’s a long story, and I’m not even sure of the plot line, but this morning we found ourselves in the Communist Party office of the hospital. We introduced ourselves to one of the office staff who, instead of throwing us out – which would have been a reasonable response to the appearance of 2 foreigners and their entourage, which consisted of a pastor, a talkative guide, and the talkative guide’s 83 year old father who is along for the ride – she instead called her boss, the Party Secretary. 

He showed up with his entourage – 2 photographers, some underlings and the general director of the hospital – and we again told them about our research.  They got excited, and showed us all into a conference room.  They have recently been researching the history of their hospital, so were thrilled to see the old photos we had and learn some of the information we had.  In turn, they had pieces of information that helped Noel fill in some of the gaps in her knowledge.

We showed them the old photos of the hospital that were labeled as being in Suifu, and they were adamant that they were photos of the hospital that had previously stood on the very piece of land the current hospital is on.  The hospital was absolutely in Yibin, not in Shuifu.  Mr. Be told them of our confusion about the location, and how we were so puzzled that Esther’s letters all said she was in Suifu. Why would she write that if she was, in fact, in Yibin?

The Party Secretary’s eyes lit up (appropriate, since he is also the chief eye surgeon at the hospital), and he said that was an easy question to answer: “Because the name of Yibin used to be Xufu!” 

Of course!!!  We had been assuming all along that it was a geographical question when in reality it was a linguistic one.

The character 徐 is written in Pinyin as Xu. That u has an umlaut over it, so saying it correctly requires one to wrinkle one’s nose, pucker one’s lips and blow. The x is similar to the sh sound in English, but the tongue rests just behind the lips, giving it almost a whistling sound. It is one of the hardest Chinese words for native English speakers to pronounce correctly since we don’t have either of those sounds in our language.

In the Wade-Giles Romanization system, which was commonly used during Esther’s time, xu was typically written as Hsu (also with an umlaut). Sui was written as sui, but the sounds of sui and shui are often mixed up. This is why we thought she was actually referring to the nearby town of Shuifu.

What was happening instead was that those who lived here, instead of using hsu, were making up their own Romanization based upon how their English ears were hearing the Chinese sounds.  Thus the sound that is now represented as xu was written by them as sui.  Hence they identified their location as being the town of Suifu. In reality, they were referring to Xufu, which was Yibin!

Yibin! Suifu! Let’s call the whole thing off!

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5 thoughts on “Yibin? Suifu? Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off

  1. I love it! A linguistic error, not geographical. Once again, ask the wrong question and the answer doens’t really matter, does it? What a great example and story! Can’t wait for the next installment.

  2. What an exciting trip. I loved the linguistic error and completely agree with Amy’s comment–ask the wrong question…