Chinese Romanization as a Political Problem
An article in the New York Times for 25 February 2002 noted the difficulties in pronouncing Chinese names which were encountered, not by some nameless student on a weekly quiz (who cares about students?), but by the President of the United States and the journalists reporting his diplomatic visit to China.
With the collaboration of independent scholar and journalist Macabe Keliher, the following was submitted to the Times as an Op-Ed piece on 27 February 2002:
CHINA PERCEIVED BUT MISSPELLED
During US President Bush's tour through East Asia last week, western commentators exhibited near flawless pronunciation of Japanese names, but they and the President alike had widely-publicized trouble with Chinese ones (Elizabeth Bumiller, "On Asian Trip, A Few Stumbles," NYT 25 Feb 2002, A16).
They are not alone. US students of Asian history over the years have found that they have little trouble with Japanese names, but stumble over Chinese ones. Now that this old problem has reached the highest diplomatic levels, its solution acquires a certain urgency. It has become clear that we need something less treacherous and misleading than the current spelling systems for the character-based Chinese language. Respect for the civilizations of the East, and recognition of their importance in the modern world, demands no less.
The problem lies not in the sounds of standard Chinese ("Mandarin"), which are easy enough for Westerners, but in the way those sounds have traditionally been spelled. This is good news because it means that a less misleading spelling system will immediately give easier access to China, making its culture and history less dubious, less marginalized, and less risky in the public mind and in formal diplomatic contacts.
The problem is built into both of the spelling systems widely used today. The 19th-century Wade-Giles system, for example, which still has its adherents, spells the d and t sounds as t and t' (t plus an apostrophe). Even if the apostrophe isn't omitted in printing, as it often is, this convention leads to such uncertainties as pronouncing the capital of Taiwan "Daipei" (should be "Taibei").
The 20th century Chinese "pinyin" system restored d and t to their familiar alphabetic values, but introduced new problems by arbitrarily assigning unused letters on the typewriter keyboard to other sounds, such as "q" for one version of the "ch" sound. This leads to such bafflements as pronouncing the first Chinese dynasty "Quinn" (should be "Chin").
Japanese pronunciations have not generated such problems, partly because the Western approach to things Japanese has been more matter-of-fact. The sound "t" is spelled with t and not with some more imaginative letter; so also "ch." The Japanese government's Kunrei system, which used to spell the place name Chichibu as the quaint but misleading "Titibu," died a deserved death. Those who now learn about Japan don't bear the extra burden of a confusing spelling system; the straightforward "Hepburn" system in general use does its work unobtrusively, and students can put their attention on matters of substance.
It would make sense to be equally matter-of-fact about Chinese pronunciations, and spell them in a way that makes maximum use of existing international alphabetic habits. Such a system exists. It is called Common Alphabetic.
CA has for some years been sponsored by the Warring States Project of the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. It spells Taibei as "Taibei," and the Chin Dynasty as the "Chin" Dynasty, and in general inhabits the ground common to existing systems and to established international usage (for details and conversion charts between all three systems, see http://www.umass.edu/wsp).
Scholars, who already know the sounds of Chinese, and don't depend on romanized forms for pronunciation, can presumably get along with any system, no matter how misleading it may be to the novice. But the general public, its journalistic mentors, and its political leaders, might want to consider the merits of a simpler approach. As an initial step, the current broadcaster's handbook of pronunciation might be revised along something like Common Alphabetic lines.
The US has a lot to learn from and about China, and it has a lot to tell China about itself. Some of the communication, on the US side, will be handled by academic experts, but a wide spectrum of diplomats, journalists, businessmen, and the interested general public, will also be involved. Their performance will have an effect on the outcome. If the process of communication falters at the very beginning, with uncertainty about the names of Chinese people and the basic terms of Chinese culture, a lot of good things will encounter needless friction. And some of them may never happen at all.
E Bruce Brooks is Research Professor of Chinese, University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Macabe Keliher is an independent scholar and journalist.
26 Feb 2002 / Contact The Project / Exit to Reference Page