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Place Names in Chinese
Note: There are two systems for transliterating Mandarin words into Latin letters. The older system, Wade-Giles, is still used in Taiwan, Singapore and other places outside of China including Chinese restaurants in the West. The newer system, pinyin, was created in the People's Republic of China. The new system is simpler and less misleading as to proper pronunciation. Pinyin names will be considered first.

Place Names in Pinyin

The first step in decoding Chinese place names is to learn the four directions.
These are:

DIRECTIONS
 north
bei
 
west
xi*
central
zhong#
east
dong
 south
nan
 

*The letter "x" has roughly the pronunciation of "sh" in English. There are two "sh" sounds in Mandarin; English speakers have difficulty distinguishing between them.
# zh has the pronunciation of the middle phoneme in measure and treasure

The names of geographic features are:

GEOGRAPHIC FEATURES
he*old broad river
jiangyoung river
which flows
through a gorge
hulake(s)
shanmountain(s)
haiocean, sea
guangexpanse(s)
mengate, gorge
chuanstream(s)
shulinforest
daoisland

*The word for river, he, has the pronunciation huh.

The names of colors and numbers are:

COLORS
baiwhite
hongred
heiblack
huangyellow
huidegray
lanblue
lugreen


NUMBERS
yione
ertwo
santhree
sifour
wufive
liusix
qiseven
baeight
jiunine
shiten


Some names for administrative entities and for attributes are:

ADMINISTRATIVE
ENTITIES
jingnational capital
shengprovince
zhouprovincial capital
shihmunicipality
zunvillage


ATTRIBUTES
anpeaceful
changlong
laoold
ningpeaceful
qing*clear
yuncloudy
zhecrooked
winding
xinnew

*The letter "q" in pinyin has roughly the pronunciation of "ch" in English.


From this abbreviated vocabulary we see that Beijing is bei-jing, northern capital and Nanjing is southern capital. The Huang He (hwang huh) is the yellow river. More examples are given below. A word of caution; there are numerous meanings for the same spelling. For example, the Hong of Hong Kong is not the word for red.

The Wade-Giles System

The Wade-Giles system is almost guaranteed to be mispronounced by anyone who is not a Mandarin speaker. For example, in the Wade-Giles system the sounds of the English letters b and p are represented as p and p ', respectively. Here is the correspondence:

SOUNDS OF LETTERS
WADE-GILESPINYINENGLISH
pbb
p'pp
tdd
t'tt
kgg
k'kk
chzh,jj
ch'qch
hsxsh
ts', tz'cts
ts, tzzds


The Chinese dish written as kung pao chicken in American Chinese restaurants should be pronounced gungbao chicken. Likewise kung fu is really gung fu. Similarly t'ai chi is really tai ji. The capital of Taiwan, Taipei, should be pronounced as Taibei. The Wade-Giles spelling for Beijing is Peking but the pronunciation of Peking was never peh-king except in the West. In the Wade-Giles system the pronunciation of Peking is the same as pinyin Beijing.

DIRECTIONS in Wade-Giles
 north
pei
 
west
hsi
central
chung
east
tung
 south
nan
 

Here are some translations of place-names. Some of these could have been determined from the preceding vocabulary; others require additional knowledge.

NATIONAL AND PROVINCIAL NAMES
PINYINWADE-GILESORGIN OF NAME WESTERN NAME
ZhonghuaChung-hua"central kingdom" China
AnhuiAn-hui"beautiful peace" Anhwei
FujianFu-chien"happy establishment" Fukien
GansuKan-sucities of Kan-chou and Su-chouKansu
GuangdongKuang-tung"eastern expanses" Kwangtung (Canton)
GuangxiKuang-hsi"western expanses" Kwangsi
GuizhouKuei-chou  Kweichow
HainanHai-nan"south of the sea" Hainan
HebeiHo-pei"north of the (Yellow) river"Hopeh
HeilongjiangHei-lung-chiang "black dragon river"Amur River
HenanHo-nan"south of the (Yellow) river"Honan
HubeiHu-pei"north of the lakes Hupeh
HunanHu-nan"south of the lakes" Hunan
JiangsuChiang-sudistrict of
Chiang-ning
and Su-chou prefectures
Kiangsu
JiangxiChiang-hsi"west of the (Yangtse*) river"Kiangsi
JilinChilinnamed after city
of Jilin, "fortunate forest"
Kirin
LiaoningLiao-ningLiao River Liaoning
NeimengguNei-meng-ku  Inner Mongolia
NingxiaNing-hsia"peaceful Hsia people" Ningsia
ShaanxiShaan-hsi "west of the passes" Shensi
ShandongShan-tung"eastern mountains" Shantung
ShanxiShan-hsi"western mountains" Shansi
SichuanSsu-ch'uan"four streams" Szechwan
XinjiangHsi-chiang"new borders" Sinkiang
XizangHsi-tsang"western reserve" Tibet
YunnanYun-nan"cloudy south" Yunnan
ZhejiangChe-chiang"crooked/winding river" Chekiang
*Yangtse was the name of a portion of the Changjiang.


Some city names:

CITY NAMES
PINYINWADE-GILESORIGIN OF NAME Western Name
BeijingPeiching"northern capital" Peking*
NanjingNanking"southern capital"  
GuangzhouKwang Chou"provincial capital"
of Guangdong
Canton
ShanghaiShanghai"onto the sea" 
WuhanWu-hanmerger of three citiesWuhan
TaibeiTaipeinorth Taiwan 
TainanTainansouth Taiwan 
ChengduCheng-tu"happy place" 
XianHsi An"western peace"Sian
QanganCh'ang-an"everlasting peace"Changan
Shenyang**Shen Yang"spirit of the sun"
(sunny north side of river)
 
HaerhbinHarbin"your happy river landing"Harbin
LanzhouLan Chou"blue orchid flower city" 
*Peking is a Wade-Giles-style romanization of the pronunciation of Beijing
in South China in the nineteenth century.
** Cities on the north side of east-west flowing rivers were often given names involving yang (sun) because the sun would not be blocked by trees on that side of the river.


NAMES OF URBAN FEATURES
FEATUREPINYINWADE-GILES
TempleSiSsu
GateMenMen
StreetLuLu

RIVER NAMES
PINYINWADE-GILESORIGIN OF NAME Western Name
ChangjiangChang Chiang"long river" Yangtse*
HuangheHuang Ho"yellow river" Yellow River
ZhujiangChu Chiang"pearl river" Pearl River
FuchunjiangFu-ch'un Chiang"river of abundant spring"  
*Yangtse was the name of a portion of the Changjiang.



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