The northern capital

Beijing in Chinese

The capital of the People’s Republic of China used to be known as Peking in English and many other languages. Since 1949 it’s been known as Beijing, which is often mispronounced: the J in jing is not pronounced /ʒ/ (/Z/) as in pleasure, but more like jing, as in jingle.

Or if you want to be strictly accurate, Beijing is pronounced /pei˨˩˦ tɕɪŋ˥˥/ (/pei_\_/ ts\iN_H/), the first syllable has a rising tone, and the second has a high level tone. Where the /ʒ/ (/Z/) pronunciation for the J comes from is a mystery to me. Any ideas anyone?

Peking is the Postal System Pinyin version of Beijing. Postal System Pinyin was introduced in Shanghai in 1906 and was based on a romanization system developed by French missionaries 400 years earlier when the Chinese word for capital, 京, was pronounced /iŋ/ (/k’iN/).

The literal meaning of Peking/Beijing is ‘Northern Capital’. There is also a Southern Capital, Nanjing (南京), and an Eastern Capital, Tōkyō (東京), which is Dongjing in Chinese. There is no Xijing (西京) or Eastern Capital though.

Between 1928 and 1949, Beijing was known as Beiping (北平) ‘Northern Peace’ in China because Nanjing was the capital for the Kuomintang government.

Another alternative name for Beijing is Yanjing (燕京), which refers to the State of Yan that existed during the Zhou dynasty (1022 – 256 BC).

This entry was posted in Chinese, Language, Words and phrases.

18 Responses to The northern capital

  1. Bill Walsh says:

    I’m guessing the “zh” j is influenced by French. Why? Got me. : )

  2. Weili says:

    Just a few notes:

    東京 Tokyo being the “Eastern Capital” has nothing to do with China :) 東京 Tokyo was named the “Eastern Capital” because it’s to the east of Japan’s former capital, 京都 Kyoto, which means “Capital City”.

    Although there is not a city NAMED 西京 Xijing (Western Capital), the city of 西安 Xi’an or formerly known as 長安 Chang’an, is sometimes referred to as 西京. 西安 Xi’an was the capital of Han and Tang dynasties, two of the most powerful dynasties in Chinese history. It’s sometimes referred to as 西京 Xijing (Western Capital) because it’s the most-western capital in Chinese history.

  3. Jared says:

    The same thing has happened to the name Elijah. Some people pronounce it with that French J, when it really comes from Hebrew Eliyahu. It probably is the influence of the French, but why? Is there a tendency of English speakers to pronounce J in that way when it comes after a vowel?

  4. Bob says:

    Hebrew doesn’t have a “j” sound and most Bible names with a “J” originally had a ‘y” sound (Hebrew yod). Jehovah, Joshua, Jacob, Judah, etc. The J came about in translation. I believe the yod was translated in the Vulgate (Latin) with an ‘I’. Later history — Norman influence changed the Latin I to a J. I can’t explain why “J”

    (I get lost once I get out of Semitic etymology . . . )

  5. Joseph Staleknight says:

    They changed it to J since it evolved from I. That’s my theory.

  6. TJ says:

    What I know from the history of writing is that, there was no destinction between “I” and “J” (and in fact latin had no J sound) and there was no destinction between “U” and “V” and the pronunciation of these two was to be known from the word itself! .. Like the name “Jesus” was written “IESVS” so every reader that time (and even upto 1700s) surely knows that it cannot be read as “yesvas” for example!!
    Notice that however all of the names mentioned before (Jacob Jesus Judah ..etc) would be (almost) said correctly as in hebrew, if the J was pronounced as “Y” and as you know germanic languages mostly have this character about the “J.”
    So, maybe french has nothing to do with it and maybe we can talk of some germanic influence instead although I’m really not familiar with the history of translations of the bible.
    Anyway there could be other possibilities I would think of for moving the I into J by translation…
    1. it could be that an initial misunderstanding of spelling that lead to such formation
    2. or it could be that the linguistical abilities for the original translators was not so flexible. An example of such matter is when you hear egyptians talk (and try to speak standard arabic) they change the “J” sound into “G” because it is easier for them to say it that way…or sometimes if they pushed hard to say it they would say “ZH” instead of “J” as in “jungle” !

    just theories!

  7. B.Jun says:

    西京[seo gyeong] was former name for the capital city Pyeong-yang[平壤] in North Korea during the Koryeo dynasty period.

  8. Aeneas says:

    Peking, I believe, is simply the cantonese pronunciation of Beijing, just as Nanking is the Cantonese pronunciation of Nanjing. I think before the communist government made efforts to promote Mandarin as the common speech throughout China, Cantonese was a little more widespread and influential.

  9. Weili says:

    “Peking, I believe, is simply the cantonese pronunciation of Beijing, just as Nanking is the Cantonese pronunciation of Nanjing. I think before the communist government made efforts to promote Mandarin as the common speech throughout China, Cantonese was a little more widespread and influential.”

    Actually in old Chinese, 京 is often pronounced with a “k” instead of a “j”. This is true for almost all, if not all, Chinese dialects outside of Mandarin. This is also true for languages such as Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, who imported words from Chinese. So it’s not necessary that “Peking” was the Cantonese pronounciation although it does sound like it. As for Nanking though, in Cantonese, it would’ve been something like Namking, with a “m” sound at the end of 南. I believe most Chinese dialects outside of Mandarin also share this trait. The same goes for Korean and Vietnamese.

    Cantonese never had much influence nor was it widespread within China herself. Cantonese, like any other dialect, were just regional dialects. Mandarin, on the other hand, has enjoyed being the status of being 官話 Guanhua (Official Language) for hundreds of years. The only place that Cantonese was influencial was perhaps oversea, especially in the U.S., namely because majority of Chinese who originally came to the U.S. to dig for gold, but were later enslaved to build railroads, were from the Guangdong province. This is why in old American Chinatowns, like the ones in SF or NY, you’ll hear Cantonese.

    BTW, the current communist government wasn’t the first one who promoted Mandarin as the common speech. This movement was started by Dr. Sun Yatsen and the Nationalist Party, this is when Zhuyin Fuhao, a phonetic spelling system based on Mandarin, was invented. Also, after the Nationalist retreated to Taiwan, Mandarin remained the official language, which is why people in Taiwan are speaking Mandarin today.

  10. AR says:

    Where I am from in America, we never pronounced Beijing with the “zh” sound. My guess at why some pronounce it like the french J is as follows:

    Since J in English is an affricative, made up of a plosive (D) and a fricative (“zh”) (indicated in french by the spelling DJ), some people get lazy as don’t feel like moving their tongue a lot to make the plosive part clear and so only the fricative comes out.
    This happens a lot in the Indian language Assamese and dialects of Bengali that are near the Assamese speaking region. For example, aspirated velar plosives (kh and gh) are often pronounced as velar fricatives. The palatal affricatives, (ch and j) are pronounced ts or sh, and dz or zh. The aspirated versions are usually, s or z.

  11. Jared says:

    Latin originally had no distinction between I and J as TJ says, but I before a vowel represents the Y sound (IPA: /j/) and was eventually changed to J, which was originally only a variant of I. When Semitic names were transliterated into Latin for Biblical translations, they sometimes came indirectly (from Greek usually, I believe) or were rendered in as close an approximation to the Hebrew as possible. Eliyah (or Eliyahu) thus became Elias originally, and later transliterators changed it to Elijah.

    Incidentally, the name Eve is Chava in Hebrew. V in Latin represents the W sound, but the change from A to E is puzzlesome. I think Eve is one of the Hebrew names that became Hellenized before it became Romanized.

    About Beijing- I’ve heard it both ways. I go back and forth between the two. When I think of it, I say it with a J; when I’m not thinking, I say with “the French J.”

  12. Aeneas says:

    Thanks for the precision, Weili. I’m pretty sure about the Cantonese pronunciation being something like Peking, since that’s what my girlfriend told me and Cantonese is her second language (after Hakka).

  13. Weili says:

    Oh don’t get me wrong, I am also pretty sure that the Cantonese pronounciation of 北京 is close to “Peking”, but we must remember that southern Chinese dialects are closer to old Chinese than Mandarin is. By that I mean in any number of southern Chinese dialects, 北京 could sound like “Peking”.

    In fact, in Korean, 北京 is Bae Kyong and in Vietnamese, it’s Bac Kinh, not too sure about Japanese. The point is, most vocabulary of Chinese-origin in Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, were imported from old Chinese, and not modern Mandarin, therefore the old Chinese pronounciation was “preserved” in those languages.

    Therefore, just because something SOUNDS like Cantonese, it doesn’t mean it is because we have to consider the fact that Cantonese is just ONE out of the many southern Chinese dialects which, like Japanese, Korean and Vietnamese, “preserved” old Chinese pronounciation. :)

  14. Simon says:

    In Cantonese Beijing is bak1ging1, in Hakka it’s bet7gin1, in Taiwanese it’s pak1keng1 and in Japanese it’s pekin.

  15. Todd says:

    Well, if the standard English J only approximates the sound of the J in Beijing, then we can’t really be blamed with trying to be a bit creative about it. It reminds me of the myriad ways that the name Van Gogh is pronounced, none of which are quite correct. The interesting thing is that spontaneously changing J to ZH is not a normal pattern in English, so it’s hard to just attribute it to sheer lazyness. Besides, there is a slightly implied í, or y, after the J of Beijing, isn’t there? Could that effect it?

  16. kudra says:

    “Or if you want to be strictly accurate, … the first syllable has a rising tone, and the second has a high level tone.”

    You have the 2nd syllable right, but Bei, has a low dip, or 3rd tone, in Mandarin. The so-called rising tone is 2nd tone. pretty much covers it.

  17. Simon says:

    Kudra – when not at the end of a word or in a monosyllabic word, a 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone. On its own bei has a 3rd tone, but in Beijing, it has a 2nd tone.

  18. epingchris says:

    >Kudra – when not at the end of a word or in a monosyllabic word, a 3rd tone becomes a 2nd tone. On its own bei has a 3rd tone, but in Beijing, it has a 2nd tone.

    However, from my own experience, 3rd tone becomes 2nd tone almost only when it is followed by a 3rd tone.