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Sinoizing Chinese Place Names



China is extremely worried that its citizens are being good to Chinese because they are naming things like housing developments after foreign places. Evidently, this will “violate the socialist core values and conventional morality,” showing once again that socialism in China has absolutely nothing in common with anything having to do with actual socialism. Of course, China is fighting what is no doubt a losing battle, especially considering those who care about this the most are probably the same wealthy people who are increasingly internationalized.

Once a name is in use, though, changing it can be problematic. Officials tried to rename a street in Zhengzhou, the capital of Henan province, ostensibly because the Chinese character used to represent its foreign name was often mispronounced by people unfamiliar with the place, China National Radio said. But residents objected and filed a lawsuit to block the change, citing the potential loss of historical identity.

Previous efforts to change foreign place names in China have not been wholeheartedly embraced, either. In the southeastern city of Fuzhou, a housing development known as Fontainebleau was ordered by local officials to change its name, which became Gaojiayuan. Afterward, one resident complained to a local newspaper that she missed her bus stop after the signs were changed.

And a real estate agent confessed that while the official name was now Gaojiayuan, for the purpose of selling houses it would always be called Fontainebleau.

Personally, I am just amused that the Chinese are building houses that are supposed to emulate log cabins in Jackson Hole, although in a nation that populated, it’s a horrible use of land.

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  • Bootsie

    I like that apparently the Chinese idea of an American life involves living in a log cabin.

    • jim, some guy in iowa

      at least on the outside they don’t look Trump-inspired

      give ’em a few years, though…

      • Lee Rudolph

        Trumpspiration’s gonna get you,
        Gonna knock you right on the head,
        Give it a couple more years, brother,
        Pretty soon you’ll wish you were dead!

      • No. Believe me, Chinese housing developers have jumped the Trump shark a long time ago…

    • Lurker

      In fact, if that is a real log cabin, it is a relatively environmental way of using resources. A log cabin is built of renewable material, and is pretty energy-efficient. The only thing I would protest is the chimney. Instead of back wall, it should be in the middle of the building. That way, you could have a stove in every room of the house, and the energy efficiency would be maximized.

      However, heating with individual fireplaces and stoves in a congested area is terrible environmentally. In the Finnish capital region, private fireplaces cause more particulate pollution than traffic.

  • Pseudonym

    As my sister says, how fu er dai.

  • ThrottleJockey

    If you shat all over the floors of China’s Fontainebleau I wonder if they execute you and then charge your family for the bullet?

    • Davebo

      No Fork on Table!

    • JonH

      Let’s send Chuck Johnson to find out.

  • Vance Maverick

    Today in “posts in my feed I did not expect to see originating anywhere else but Language Log”! Though there it would probably have been called Sinicization.

    • I was kind of guessing on the proper term.

      • Vance Maverick

        Have you written here about American place names? I’m sure all the same ambitions and insecurities could easily be traced. If you don’t know it, for example, I’ll bet you can guess the economic tier of the neighborhood called “St. Francis Wood.”

        • mikeSchilling

          To live there, you have to take a vow of poverty.

          • Vance Maverick

            Right, in the city that was made by the Gold Rush. We’ve generally been more about St. Francis of Drake than the one from Assisi (with notably rare exceptions).

        • galanx

          Glengarry Glen Ross

  • LosGatosCA

    You can get London Broil in New York, New York strip in Chicago, Chicago Pizza in Palo Alto, etc.

    The grass is always greener on this side of the fence if you can pretend it’s the other side.

  • LosGatosCA

    I’ve been informed that Sixth Avenue in Manhattan was renamed some 50 odd years ago. I just don’t know what the name was changed to.

    • heckblazer

      Wikipedia says it was renamed “Avenue of the Americas” in 1945, so more like 70 years ago. It also says pretty much no one uses the new name.

      • LosGatosCA

        Then you understood my point very well.

        • I once asked a New Yorker where Avenue of the Americas was as per my written directions and he was confused.

  • LeeEsq

    Most of the Chinese population is heavily concentrated near the costs, where it is about as dense as New Jersey. The interior can be very sparsely populated in places. Qinghai Provinces is about the size of Texas but only has a population of 5.6 million people. If New Jersey gets away with being suburban than so can China.

  • Robespierre

    It will be hard enough for China to develop to developed-country standards of living without wrecking the planet; adopting the especially insanely wasteful ways of an outlier like the United States is going to make it extra-hard.

    • LeeEsq

      People only have one life to live and most do not take kindly to the suggestion that they should sacrifice their life for the good of the future. This has always been one of environmentalism big problems, getting people to take a hit in the standard of living in their lives so the earth will be around for future humans.

  • Just_Dropping_By

    Nitpick: this would be “sinicization” or “sinofication” rather than “sinoization: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sinicization

  • Aubergine

    Real estate place names are always good for a hoot. “Quail Ridge, a gated community of graceful homes…” honors the quail who no longer live there and the ridge now flattened for all the three-car garages. “Heritage Estates” has a heritage measured in months and estates measured in square feet, not square miles. Since modern China is, ironically, the most Trumpian of modern societies with its love of false facade and gaudy ostentation, why shouldn’t Chinese real estate take the practice to its logical conclusion and build Jackson-By-The-Sea?

  • steeleweed

    Some languages like [American] English and Russian readily adopt foreign words, but China has historically resisted this, preferring to coin a Chinese word with similar meaning. Actually using foreign words probably indicates a greater degree of globalization.

    • Jean-Michel

      There’s no need to qualify “English,” given that even the most formal English is loaded with borrowings from French, Norman, Latin, and Greek, and non-American varieties of English have plenty of foreign borrowings unused in American English. As for Chinese, it actually has a huge proportion of vocabulary borrowed from Japanese, like the word “Republic” in “People’s Republic of China” (共和国 gònghéguó), along with words like 警察 “police,” 公民 “citizen,” 革命 “revolution,” 时间 “time,” 广告 “ad,” 电话 “telephone,” 社会 “society,” 商业 “commerce,” and 共产主义 “communism.” The language is amenable to Japanese borrowings of this sort because they were formed by the Japanese (mostly in the late 19th century) from Sinitic morphemes and were written with meaningful Chinese characters, as opposed to phonetic borrowings from Western languages that have to be assigned to more-or-less arbitrary characters based on their sound. The pre-Japanese word for “telephone” was 德律风, which is pronounced délǜfēng but translates character-by-character as the nonsensical “moral law wind”; it’s easy to see why it was replaced by 电话, literally “electric speech.” The situation might be different if Chinese (like Korean and Japanese) could write phonetic loans with a purely phonetic script, but this isn’t considered an option in Chinese.

      I should also say that I don’t approve of top-down diktats to regulate culture and language, but I do think the sort of names discussed in the article are genuinely annoying and will probably look silly in ten years or so. Part of the problem is that these companies often use idiosyncratic transcriptions instead of long-established ones, presumably to add some additional exoticism. The Fontainebleau in Fuzhou is a great example: the normal Chinese word for “Fontainebleau” is 枫丹白露, but the housing development is called 枫丹白鹭, where the final 露 has been swapped out for the homophonous 鹭. Besides the fact that “Fontainebleau” is 枫丹白露 in literally every other context, the 鹭 character is fairly rare (it means “heron” and isn’t among the top 4,000 characters, whereas 露 “dew” is in the top 1,000 and is often used to transcribe foreign names). So just writing the name of the development requires remembering an unusual character that most people will never use, and if you ever need to refer to, say, the Fontainebleau in Paris, then you need to remember not to use that character, or end up misspelling the word. Another example: of the numerous “Manhattans” around China, some are written with the standard 曼哈顿 and others with 蔓哈顿. A rough equivalent of this would be if somebody decided to open a shop in the U.S. called “Manhatan” a la Fringe—which might be memorable, but not so much if a few hundred other businesses adopt the same “creative” spelling.

      I should also add, incidentally, that the NYT article doesn’t seem entirely sure what it’s talking about; for example it cites Beijing’s “International Wonderland” is an example of one of these weird foreign names, but the Chinese name is (and, as far as I can tell, always has been) 幸福广场 “Happiness Plaza,” which doesn’t sound even slightly foreign despite the fact that 广场 is another Japanese loan. The “Beijing Riviera” has the normal-sounding Chinese name 香江花园 “Fragrant River Gardens.” Tellingly, the NYT’s Chinese translation of the story doesn’t include these examples, which I suspect are irrelevant here—the odds that the government is going to crack down on the English names of businesses, housing developments etc., which generally exist purely for decorative purposes, seems unlikely.

      • JohnT

        Thank you for this – I know enough about Chinese to get a vague sense of the mess you get when you try and transliterate foreign words, but didn’t realise borrowing from Japanese was one of the fixes for that.
        By the way, what does Gaojiayuan mean? Blue Fountainhall?

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