What’s in a Name?

Beijing (English) - - EDITOR’S NOTE - Trans­lated by Wang Wei Edited by Roberta Raine)

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.

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