Back to Beijing


John Wells’ blog today mentions the pronunciation of Beijing, and the BBC Pronunciation Unit’s recommendation to pronounce the -j- in the same way as in the English word ‘jingle’. He wonders how many people will heed the advice (and it’s what he gives in the Longman English Pronunciation Dictionary as well). From my experience, not many.

The New China News Agency (NCNA) decided back in the 1970s that from 1 January 1979, the only romanized spellings they would use for all Chinese names were the Pinyin ones. This meant that the capital city became Beijing, rather than whatever it might be in the various languages the NCNA put copy out in. For English-language newspapers and broadcasters, this left a problem: did they follow suit, and adopt Pinyin spellings (and so pronunciations) for all Chinese names, or did they continue to use the versions that had been current up to then, only using Pinyin for those people and places that were unfamiliar, or had no regular European spellings? Some names did not change, of course, such as the name of the Ming dynasty, but many others acquired very unfamiliar spellings: the Ching dynasty became Qing, and the early Communist leaders changed from Mao Tse Tung and Chou En Lai to Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai. Indexing became a problem as well: did you continue to look under C for the Ching dynasty, or only under Q, or should you cross reference everything, thus increasing the length of the index by a good deal?

Some publishers appeared to be completely bemused – I remember an article in the Times which used both Peking and Beijing in consecutive paragraphs. Many readers must have wondered whether the writer was talking about two different places. The BBC eventually canvassed the views of many of its journalists as to whether the”old” name, Peking, should be used, or the “new” one, Beijing. The correspondent in the Chinese capital at the time thought Peking should be maintained. No one asked me, but had they, I should have agreed with him: the words “old” and “new” were inappropriate in this context. The Chinese had not changed the name of the capital, which might have justified our changing it (as happened with Cambodia changing to Khmer Republic and then Kampuchea, before reverting to Cambodia), but had simply changed their romanization. However, his views were over-ridden, and the BBC has said Beijing ever since. Unfortunately, it has not – apart from the Radio 4 newsreaders (and not all of them!) and newsreaders on other networks (Radios 2 & 3 and World Service principally), most BBC broadcasters persist in using the palato-alveolar fricative (see my post ‘Fricative or Affricate’, and also John Maidment’s blog recently on Chinese alveolo-palatals). Notable exceptions have been every single one of the BBC’s correspondents stationed in Beijing, most recently James Reynolds. If they can learn, I see no reason why the rest of the Corporation’s staff can’t take the trouble to check with the pronunciation database and follow its advice.


  1. As a devoted Linguism fanatic, may I humbly suggest that this toothpaste is already out of the tube? Beizhing is spreading like food poisoning at a mayonnaise convention.

    To paraphrase a couple comments from the recent Beijing Sounds blog entry on the same subject (
    1. Even some Mandarin-speaking expats say it
    2. It’s only a matter of time before we hear Mandarin speakers struggling to pronounce Beizzhing “correctly” in English

    Peeve not. Tomato/tomahto. It’s all non-native anyway.

  2. The Iranian standup comic Omid Djalili has avoided any such problems by spelling his surname with a “Dj”. I’m sure that if he hadn’t people would be saying “Zhalili” before long.

    Jakarta would seem to be a counterexample (I don’t think anyone says “Zhakarta”, do they?). Of course it was formerly spelt Djakarta. And Indian names, for historical reasons, are similarly immune (Jaipur etc).

  3. As a follow-up, I should add that Iranian names are a bit of a minefield. Given that there are 2 As (roughly as in cat & father) as well as the 2 Js we’ve discussed, that leaves you with less than a 1% chance of getting both Ahmadinejad and Larijani completely right by guesswork. For the record they should be cat, cat, zh, father & father, dj, father (in SAMPA: /{hm{dinE”ZAd/ & /lAridZA”ni/).

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