by Sam Beatson.

 Mike’s last blog post  is an interesting article and I acknowledge Mike’s passion for this matter, which I do share. The article above appears to call for greater respect for Chinese language or pronounciation by English speakers, in the name of internationalisation.

I recall “East and West” by the last governor of Hong Kong under British Rule, the conservative, Chris Patten. A look at the index of Patten’s first book of the same title (known to be the more diplomatically censored of his Hong Kong books) sees “Beijing” referenced only by a “see Peking” redirect. There is a rationale for this in Patten’s thoughts…I go on to quote from page 4 of the Caveat Emptor part of the book:

“…I do not admire or look up to the Chinese Communist Party, any more than of old I admired the Soviet Communist Party. [new para] There is one more absurd footnote to this argument that dislike of the Communist Party and all its works is one and the same as hostility to China. I always refer to ‘Peking’, not ‘Beijing’. This is not an insult. It is because there is a word in the English language for China’s capital. I refer similarly to ‘Rome’ not ‘Roma’, ‘Brussels’ not ‘ Bruxelles’, Lisbon, not ‘Lisboa’. I am not told when I do so that I am being anti-Italian, anti-Belgian or anti-Portuguese.”

On Chinese language television, do we not see Western names, cities and so on turned into Chinese pronunciation? We can’t say surely that this makes CCTV and pretty much all of China, ‘grossly ignorant’. Do they need to reflect on the disrespect to persons concerned? It would be absurd to say that they did.

I do not agree that the BBC commentators need take one year of Chinese lessons in order to get right the pronunciation of Chinese names on British television. The Pronounciation analysis was pedantic. Perhaps we feel, as specialists on China, the commentators should be able to pronounce “Zh” as “J” and not “Je”. This could be pointed out in a simple letter to the Beeb. Normatively though, isn’t it an inappropriate call and disrespectful to the British commentators to highlight this matter when Chinese is still a very much optional part of the curriculum even for the current generation of school pupils?

It is totally acceptable that a British commentator, similarly a Russian, US or German commentator would have great difficulty in pronouncing Chinese names without specialising in the subject, which whilst growing in its popularity is still a fairly tight niche.

Rather than kow-tow to China’s rise, do we ‘Western’ and commonwealth nations not need to regroup by way of assertion of our own individuality, synergistic strength and ‘soft power’, reflecting on continued successes, as we find a way out of the aftermath of the recent financial meltdown?

It seems bizarre that somehow as China begins to find strength in its incredible economic growth, this should be interpreted as the rest of the world automatically should show more respect and politeness to China than China shows to the rest of the world, or indeed that it might show to its own kind. Countries and cultures have to earn respect in more ways than economic development and China is still very much working on it, yet we know the potential is enormous.

The point made is really quite unjustified in the criticism, if I may say so, Mike, though I understand where you are coming from. Can we be so certain though, that adopting unbalanced rules of propriety that favour the Chinese position are actually of benefit to internationalisation from the British perspective? Given that we are at a British institution and of that country, one might expect even an iota of loyalty… Queen Victoria would be turning in her grave that it has even become a matter that is up for discussion.

Sam Beatson is a PhD candidate in the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies

Opinions expressed in the CPI blog do not represent the views of the China Policy Institute or the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham. They are the personal views of the bloggers/authors.


  1. After reading both, there seems to be a few points that spring to mind. Firstly, a commentators job is to commentate. Part of that job is learning how to say different words, therefore covering pronunciation of different names. Is it that hard to check with a Chinese colleague the pronunciation of a name?

    Secondly, if our media actually ups its game and does learn to pronounce things properly, then we as a society benefit greatly. People become more familiar with things that are considered foreign. I am a firm believer that if people are more familiar with other cultures, the less likely that they’ll be hostile towards that group of people from that culture. In my humble opinion, little things like this will help solve prejudices.

    Finally, I want to address the suggestion that we are “Kowtowing” to other nations by calling their city name… what it should actually be called. I agree in the sense that I also do not think it is anti-Chinese to call a city by an English name, but I do think it is illogical in this new day and age. It is just cause for confusion and unfortunately it does create a barrier, and one that just isn’t needed. Also the suggestion that we need to have these names to assert our own “soft power” is something that again creates barriers. I see it being that we are more advanced in our way of thinking rather than it being us kowtowing by calling it what its people call it.

  2. And there is surely no justification whatsoever for Newsnight’s recent (mis) labelling on a map graphic the northern port city that was the focus of their report as ‘Tyen-jin’.

  3. Language is changing and vibrant. The pronunciation is not the most important. And the Chinese, being xeno-philes, will likely NOT challenge the Britons for mispronouncing their names. The language in question is tonal language, and knowing the consonants and vowels is still far away form speaking the language correctly. And in English the tonal marks are often missed.

    There are many different dialects or more accurately topolects in China. Cantonese are not mutual intelligible to Mandarin speakers. If a Cantonese speaker did not learn Mandarin, he or she can’t converse with or comprehend a Mandarin speaker. Most of Hong Kongers speaks only poor Putonghua with a heavy Cantonese accent, if they manage with hard effort to produce an utterance in that language. They simply mispronounced.

    As a lover for language I respect many a language and will try to get the perfect and most accurate pronunciation. But English is supreme to many of us. And many words form many language, let’s say french, have been Anglicized.

    In many of Hongkong Chinese thought, it is the sportsmen’s obligation to provide an English name.

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