What’s in a Name?
When people are asked to say what they love about their hometown, what do they say? Lao She (1899–1966), a great modern Chinese writer, admired the city for its green mountains, azure waters and diverse folk customs. Hsu Chihmo, an early 20th-century Chinese poet, described in his notes an unforgettable Chinese flowering crab-apple tree that symbolised the deep affection between he and his wife in his younger years. Having lived in Beijing for a long time, Liang Shiqiu (1903–1987), a renowned educator and writer, described in one of his essays that he found Beijing’s snacks so unforgettable. However, for native Beijingers, there is yet another symbol unique to Beijing culture—place names.
Recently, a city-planning document entitled the Overall Plan for the Place Names of the Beijing Lize Financial Business District (2014–2020) was approved by the municipal government. According to this plan, based on principles such as respecting history and customs and using names that are easy to remember, more than half of the place names in this district will be restored to what they were when Beijing was the capital of the Jin Dynasty (1115–1234). For example, a village that came into being during that dynasty will resume its original name of Fenghuangzui (“mouth of the phoenix”). Other places relating to history, such as the Ming-dynasty village of Wanquansi (“ten thousand springs temple”), will also have their original names restored. In this district, there are a total of eight urban trunk roads, 11 urban secondary trunk roads and 21 urban branch roads; of these 40 roads, 25 will have their historical names restored. Within this eightsquare-kilometre area, the names of more than 60 percent of the places will return to their original names.
These historical place names are connected to Beijing’s development and contain memories and stories unique to the city. The name of Longjin (“dragon crossing”) Road, for example, has a story behind it. In the Jin Dynasty, this road passed near the former location of Longjin Bridge, which flowed over a river that faced the imperial city, so the road was named for the bridge, and is a name quite familiar to people in this district. Other place names that are less familiar, such as Duanli Street, are reminiscent of the urban layout of the Jin Dynasty capital. At that time, Duanli Street was located to the south of Duanli Gate, so the street was named after the gate.
For a city with rich cultural traditions and a long history of development like Beijing, each place name is a piece of history. Their origins, reasons for their names, and their metaphorical and implicit meanings are the essence of traditions that have been passed down through history. By restoring all these old names, the cultural traditions of Beijing are continued and the city’s cultural heritage is preserved.
Stories behind the place names have been handed down from one generation to the next. Changchun Street to the west of Xuanwu Gate was an important trunk road in the old city proper of Beijing. This bustling and prosperous street was once called Xianglai (“approaching elephants”) Street because during the Ming and Qing (1644–1911) dynasties, it was where people would watch how elephants raised by the imperial court were escorted to bathe in the moat.
Thedengshikou area in today’s Dongcheng District was where Beijingers used to eat yuanxiao (sweet dumplings made of glutinous rice) and enjoy the lanterns on display during the Lantern Festival. During the heyday of the Ming Dynasty, the visitors coming to the lantern market from far and near totalled no less than 10,000. Thus, the Dengshikou (“entry to the city of lanterns”) area was named after this lively market.
One day in the Qing Dynasty, Emperor Qianlong (reign: 1736–1795) did an inspection tour to Suzhou together with his mother. After returning to the palace, he couldn’t help but think of the beautiful scenery there, so he decided to implement a large-scale project that would transform the street starting at Wanshou Temple and extending all the way to Haidian Township into the style of business streets in Suzhou. This is how today’s Suzhou Street got its name.
Each city has its own special way of self-expression. What makes Beijing unique is people’s accent, the way people treat each other with kindness, and its history and culture.