Beijing vs Peking


A letter in the Independent newspaper last week (Wednesday 21 November), from Shirin Tata of London, explained the spelling and pronunciation of Peking as ‘a close approximation to the Cantonese name for the city (“puck-ing” with a hard “p”)’. This came about, the writer says, because early contacts between Europe and China were with traders and seamen from the south of China, and the Europeans copied their pronunciation for place names. This explanation is similar to that for the origin of the English name for Livorno in Italy: Leghorn (now obsolete), which is a close approximation to the local dialectal form for the name: Ligorno.

However, I have a different explanation for Peking: some of the earliest European travellers to China were Jesuit priests – the first dictionary of Chinese for Europeans was written by Jesuits – and as these would mainly be from southern European countries and speaking Romance languages, they would have transcribed what they heard in terms of their own languages, whether French, Spanish, Italian or Portuguese. In all these languages, the voiceless plosives (/p. t. k/) are unaspirated, unlike the English equivalents. As the initial consonant of the Mandarin name for Peking is also unaspirated, the priests will have written down a ‘p’. The following vowel (or diphthong) is, or at least starts as, a half close front vowel, and the spelling convention for this in all the Western Romance languages is ‘e’ (or ‘é’ in French). The next consonant is also unaspirated, but pronounced in the palatal area, auditorily closest to the sound represented in European languages by a ‘k’ when it occurs before a front vowel, as in this case. The final velar nasal is a sound that occurs only allophonically in French, Italian, Spanish and Portuguese, so again, the nearest sound was used: [n]. This gives us the French version of the name Pékin, borrowed into English (the spelling ‘Pekin’ was common at one time).

I find this more satisfactory as an explanation than that of Shirin Tata, as it accounts for the initial ‘p’ in the English – and general European – spelling. Both the Cantonese and Mandarin pronunciations have what Shirin describes as a ‘hard’ p – in other words, an unaspirated sound, which is far more similar to English /b/ than it is to English /p/.


  1. Can we still order Peking Duck or do we need to change to Beijing Duck?

  2. Sorry, I’m going with Shirin on this one. What do you make of Nanjing? The old, European pronounciation for Nanjing was “Nanking”. This is also a Cantonese derivative, just like Peking. (king is the cantonese word for capital, jing is the manadarin). Your argument that “Pékin” is found in old text is just an interesting fact that doesn’t really lend support to your argument because it still could have been a Cantonese derivative. Occam’s razor says you’re expanation is not the right one.

  3. The commies want us to stop using the historic transliteration; therefore we should continue to call Peking, “Peking”, and continue to pray for the day that the ruthless dictatorship is overthrown and freedom is restored to that land.

  4. Even if the ruthless dictatorship is overthrown, the Hanyu Pinyin romanization will almost certainly remain. “Peking” is an absurd spelling in terms of modern Mandarin.

    I say “modern” because both “Peking” and “Nanking” reflect an earlier state of Mandarin in which velar stops before front vowels had not yet merged with affricates; this sound change happened around the 16th century. Cantonese has not undergone this sound change, and its name for the city called “North-capital” remains Pakking.

  5. John -
    But “Moscow” is an equally absurd spelling for the Russian capital. Should we all start saying – and writing – “Moskva”?

  6. I agree with Graham; when we call Munich Munchen, Vienna Wien, Venice Venezia and Florence Firenze, then I’ll consider calling the capital of a communist country that has oppressed its people, despoiled Tibet and poses the greatest long term threat to the civilized peoples of the West by it’s Chinese name Beijing, instead of its English name Peking.

  7. I think people are missing the point here by adding politics into the discussion. Regardless of your political views about Communism, why would you want to say the name of city incorrectly. We should call each city by it’s real name as Terry said in jest. The fact is that Beijing is in a Mandarin speaking country, not a Cantonese speaking country, officially. As a student of Mandarin, I certainly wouldn’t want to sound so silly as to mispronounce such easy characters and pinyin as Beijing.

  8. Seth – neither my comment on the post nor terry’s brings politics into the discussion. When you are speaking English, what do you call the capital of Austria, or those important cities in Germany – Munich/München and Cologne/Köln? Likewise the Italian capital, and Turin/Torino, Milan/Milano, Florence/Firenze, Naples/Napoli? If you regularly use the German or Italian versions of the names, I wonder what reaction you have from the people you are speaking to. If I used these ‘native’ pronunciations (which would already be heavily accented with my English phonology) I would expect to be told not to be so pretentious. If I went further and used a totally German or Italian pronunciation, then I might be asked to repeat myself, as I was becoming incomprehensible.

  9. Graham, how right you are. The notion, which seems to be rapidly gaining ground in the English-speaking world, that every place should be called by its “real name”, as Seth puts it, meaning in fact its indigenous name in the local language, is absurd. Not simply defying linguistic habits worldwide, this presents everybody with the preposterous task of trying to master the pronunciation of every language in the world in order to get every name right and the ludicrous task of trying to understand every name in every language in the world when they hear it.

    My personal bęte noire is Andalucia (with or without the accent over the i) used in place of Andalusia — and I say this as a fluent Spanish speaker. What exactly is the point of expecting every English speaker to master the Spanish ‘c’ before ‘i’ (equivalent to ‘th’ in English) and to put the stress on the ‘i’ according to Spanish pronunciation rules when there is a time-honoured and beautiful English version of the place name which everybody knows?

    Linguistic naivete and misplaced political correctness are my guesses, being kind; mere pretentiousness, being harsh.

  10. Surely we are as inconsistant as ever. If we’re to adopt the Mandarin names for Chinese cities and provinces as suggested then TaiPei should be TeiBei.
    Furthermore if we are to be ‘correct’, surely all China (PROC and ROC) should be adjusted to Mandarin.
    Kowloon (nine dragons in Cantonese) should be referred to as jyoulung, and Hong Kong become Syang Gang – sorry if my Pin Ying is wrongly spelled but you know what I’m saying………. and Canton, Guan Dong

    I’d agree with the offering of ‘selective pretentiousness’. If we’re going to be consistant let’s do one or the other. The BBC should feel some rsponsibility for the lack of clarity. It refers to Burma and Beijing in the same sentence during News Bulletins, whilst other organisations would have us describe Burma as Myanmar.
    But then the BBC doesn’t know what an Engineer is

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