Chinese is hard, but so is trying to figure out how to spell Chinese in English. Pronouncing Chinese words is tougher still. As the ever vigilant James Fallows noted in a series of posts in 2012, Americans favor saying “Beizhing,” with a Frenchified zh– sound in the middle of it, rather than “Beijing,” with a plain old “Jingle Bells”-style j– sound.
He was not the only one to notice this disconnect. His readers, an intelligent and well informed bunch, proposed a number of interesting explanations for the persistence of the Frenchified pronunciation. Many theories had strong surface appeal. Maybe, “deep down Americans think that all foreign languages are French.” Another, the It’s All Walter Cronkite’s Fault Theory, held that Cronkite used the long zh instead of “j” sound in the early 1970s when Nixon first went to China and it stuck. After all, surely Walter Cronkite knows what he was talking about.
But other astute readers pointed out that Cronkite did not say Beizhing or Beijing at all, instead using the older romanization of Peiking. So Walter Cronkite is off the hook.
One hundred years ago, the spelling of Peking, and, in turn, its pronunciation, was an unsettled and controversial subject. While researching at the Library of Congress and National Archives I came across a very interesting article about adding or dropping the “g” in Peiking at the turn of the twentieth century.
From the 1850s down to 1897 the correct spelling for China’s capital city in official U.S. government correspondence and publications was Peiking. That changed in the 1897 when the U.S. Board of Geographic Names, established in 1890, voted to shorten it to the Cantonese dialect term Peikin. This change, apparently, did not garner much notice until the Boxer Rebellion when a host of government agencies started using the word Peikin in much greater volume.
It eventually attracted the ire of a Miss E.R. Scidmore who launched her own campaign for the Board of Geographic Names to put back “g” back in Peiking. Unable to secure a proper hearing, she collected and presented the opinions and judgments from the eminent diplomats and Sinologists of the time. At the International Oriental Congress of 1902 in Hamburg, Scidmore asked scholars how to spell the name of the Chinese capital in English and all agreed that it was Peiking.
Adding or subtracting the “g” was a serious issue. In his own official reports in the first years of the 20th century, American diplomat William Rockhill actually ignored official convention and insisted on putting the “g” in Peiking. He thought the Board of Geographic Names often gets it right—as was the case with Seoul—but that it was “a pity the same care was not exercised throughout its work.” For Rockhill, there could “be no doubt in the mind of any person who has ever heard the name pronounced by a Chinaman—save a Cantonese.”
Others also maintained a hard line on the issue. Sir Thomas Wade, author of a Chinese-language textbook, also served as British Minister in Peiking. Upon receiving a dispatch from a British consul in the interior of China addressed to him in “Peikin,” he caustically replied that “Her Majesty does not maintain a legation in the city of that name.”
Scidmore submitted all of this evidence to the Board of Geographic Names for its regular meeting in December 1902. The group decided to switch back to using Peiking , “putting the government in line with the world’s best usage again.”
-All quotations come from The Journal of The American Asiatic Association, Volume III, Number 4, May 1903, page 118.