Beijing’s Name Change: How and When Did it Happen?


Why did Peking change its name toBeijing? When did this happen? Whose decision was this? If the city has gone through this official name change then, why isBeijingstill sometimes referred to as “Peking” by locals and foreigners?

The answer to all these puzzling questions is really quite simple. The Chinese capital did not change its name but Chinese words began to be spelled in English differently. In Chinese, the name stayed exactly the same and most Chinese people are not even aware that some Westerners think that there has been a name change. The old spelling has beenPeking, this is how the city appeared in much of the earlier discourse that surrounds the topic. After the establishment of the People's Republic of China in 1949, the government adopted the pinyin transliteration method and used this to write many of the proper names (including place names, people's names, etc) using the Latin alphabet. Theoretically, this was when Peking became known in the West asBeijing. In reality, however, the West has been using the old spelling long after it had already been replaced inChina. It has only been since the 1980s thatChinastarted to enforce its official name on all flights, sea routes and official documents. This is why the namePekingis still echoing in our minds and people continue to use it even today. Needless to say, it is easier to pronounce thanBeijing.

Both the old and new spelling are approximations of the Chinese sound, pronounced similar to "pay-cheeng." The same pseudo-change is seen in the name of Nanking which is now written asNanjing. Remember the movie Chunking Express? Chunking in mainlandChina(where it is located anyway) is written asChongqing-- it is the same thing under a different spelling system.

A number of names did not change their spelling, however.Shanghaihas always beenShanghaibut this is because both the old and new spelling systems transcribed in the same way. The change from Peking toBeijingis perhaps the most dramatic because, for starters, it is the capital ofChinaand thus one of the best known Chinese cities. As well, the change is relatively large in scale.Tianjin, one of the main naval entry ports intoMainland,Chinaused to be written asTientsinbut since then the area lost its importance and few people remember its days of glory. This is just a brief history on the why’s and hows of our city’s official name.