Many who visit the Middle Kingdom for the first time
(particularly those who remember the ‘old days’ when the city was known in the
West as Peking) want to know when the name of the city changed from Peking to
Beijing. The easy answer is that it
changed in the 1970’s by order of the Chinese government.
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
The name of the city first came into western languages via
contact with Chinese in the south, who pronounced the characters as pe
king; therefore we got Peking. In the 1970’s
the government said that henceforth they wanted the city to be known in English by the
northern pronunciation of the characters.
That’s what gave us Beijing.
Government edict notwithstanding, the name Peking can
still be found in use. On its English
documents Beijing University still uses “Peking University.” When you fly to Beijing, your luggage tag will have the letters PEK,
which is still the airline code for the city.
Then there’s the question of the city’s beloved roast duck. Is it Peking Duck or Beijing Duck? There are strong opinions on this matter, and I won't wade into that controversy.
The city has not always been named Beijing (northern
capital), but in fact has held multiple names over multiple dynasties. During the Republican Era (1911-1949) the
name of the city was Beiping (北平), which means ‘northern peace.’
The reason for this was that after the revolution which overthrew the Qing Dynasty, the Nationalists moved
the nation’s capital to Nanjing (南京).
That name means ‘southern capital.’ With Beijing no longer serving as
the capital they took out the 京 and replaced it with 平.
During the Yuan Dynasty (presided over by the Mongols in the late 1200's), the city’s name
was Dadu (大都) which means ‘great city’ or ‘great metropolis’ or
And that's a fun connection to my past. When I was born in Pakistan, lo these many many years ago, my parents were living in a city called….Dadu!
So I guess it's fitting that Beijing is my adopted home town.