Yes, Let’s Call ‘Beijing’ Peking

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A view of Peking, or “Beijing,” as the Chinese Communist Party prefers you call it. (SeanPavonePhoto/Getty Images)

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Celebrating the victory of Team USA over China in Winter Olympics hockey, David notes that he is “not watching the Olympic games in Peking.” For those who are unaware, Peking is what most English-language speakers used to call what the Chinese Communist Party now insists we identify as “Beijing.” The older name lives on: e.g., in “Peking University,” located in “Beijing”; that city’s airport, whose International Air Transport Association designation is “PEK”; and in Peking duck. But “Beijing” is now largely standard. A 2020 Spectator Australia article by Mark Higgie tells the story:

The Chinese communist regime’s demand, starting in 1979, that we stop saying Peking and Can-ton and instead start saying Beijing and Guandong was . . . comparable to the Germans suddenly insisting that we start calling Munich München or the Russians demanding we call Moscow Moskva. China’s justification was that the new names it insisted on more accurately indicated their pronunciation in Mandarin. Despite the audaciousness of the demand, the English-speaking world steadily capitulated. In 1986, the New York Times announced that it would switch to ‘Beijing’. Every other major US newspaper and news magazine soon followed suit. Britain was a bit slower. The Guardian didn’t change until 1988, the BBC until 1990 and, ironically, the now consistently leftist Independent resisted longer on the magnificent grounds that it wasn’t inclined to do what it was told by the Chinese government. The Times stuck with ‘Peking’ until 1997 when, according to the Irish Times, its correspondent in China was summoned to the Foreign Ministry and told co-operation would be withdrawn if the Times didn’t stop using ‘Peking’. It surrendered.

Immense pressure applied to a seemingly minor matter by deliberate and persistent focus, leading to Western concession: Now there’s a familar tale.

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There are holdouts, however. In addition to our own David Harsanyi, there is British columnist Peter Hitchens, who in 2007 made the case for Peking. “Yes, this is the real Chinese name of the country’s capital,” he grants, while adding parenthetically “(And the Chinese don’t call their country ‘China’. they call it ‘Zhongguo.)’” Noting, however, that English-language users do not consent to the domestic term for a whole host of other cities — Moscow, Prague, Helsinki, Copenhagen — Hitchens adds:

My view is that it’s a cultural cringe to a newly powerful China. But most other European countries don’t do it (check the headlines of their newspapers next time you’re in Wien, Warszawa, Bucuresti, Anvers, Nuernberg , Muenchen,  Firenze, or absolutely anywhere in Sverige, Norge or Espana ), and I really don’t see why we should. And are you really offended that Poles call London ‘Londyn’, that the Italians call it ‘Londra’ and the French call it ‘Londres’?  On the contrary, it’s a compliment, that your capital is famous enough to merit its own name in the great languages of the world.

National Review itself used to prefer Peking. One story in September 8, 1956, issue is simply headlined “Peking Passports.” An item in the “Abroad” section of the October 15, 1963, issue is datelined “Peking.” And an item under the “For the Record” section of the October 6, 1963, issue reads:

Well-authenticated reports indicate that over 30 Chinese Communist technicians, including 20 nuclear scientists, returned to Peking from Moscow early in September, Taiwan sources say of four atomic reactors on Chinese soil only one, in Peking, is operating because of withdrawal of Soviet aid and technicians . . .

As recently as 1989, National Review held out, titling an essay on the Tiananmen Square massacre by Nien Cheng, “Massacre in Peking.”

All of which is to say that David’s casual referral to Peking instead of “Beijing” is more than justified. I will happily join him in preferring this designation, and encourage others to do the same. If “Beijing” is the name the Chinese Communist Party prefers, well . . . the last thing we should do is agree to it.

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