Saturday, June 6, 2009

Place Names

In the library on Friday, while looking for something else, I came
across a book called “Place Names of Beijing.” It’s like “Sites of
O’ahu” for those of you familiar with that work - an account of how
places around the city got their names and what used to be there.
This was immediately fascinating to me, as there are a number of place
names I’ve always wondered about. A certain number of place names in
Beijing (or any Chinese city) are apparently obvious in their origins,
like Baizhifang (Papermakers’ Street) or Liulichang (Glazed Brick
Factory), though it can be interesting to find out how these got
started - Liulichang apparently became the site of the eponymous
factory at the beginning of the Yuan (c. 1279) when Beijing was first
established as a national capital, so that even though it’s been the
city’s primary antiques market for centuries, it still has its rather
industrial name. Similarly, many neighborhoods simply have the names
of the villages that were located there before they were absorbed into
the urban sprawl. Many Chinese village names have a standard form,
like Ganjiakou, “Gan Family Junction,” or Shijiazhuang (the capital of
Hebei), “Shi Family Villa.” So these become the names of major
intersections in the city, where the villages once stood.

Other place names are less obvious in their meanings. When I was
first here, I attended a high school on Erlong Lu (Two Dragon Road), a
confusingly twisty road in the Xicheng district. I lived with a
family just off that road, on a lane called Yunti hutong (Ladder to
the Clouds Lane), which connected Erlong Lu with the rather
inexplicably named Picai hutong (Opening Talent Lane). So I started
by looking these up. Two Dragon Road, it turns out, was the location
of the prison and the criminal courts in the Ming city (1368-1644).
Two winding streams, which emptied into the Zhongnanhai lakes, curved
around the complex like a moat, and from their winding aspect they
were called the Two Dragon Streams. Eventually they were shored up
artificially, so that the water was well below ground level, and they
became known as the Two Dragon Ditches. And eventually, during the
Qing, they were paved over like many of Beijing’s other minor
waterways, and became Two Dragon Road.

Yunti hutong, which I always privately thought of as “Stairway to
Heaven Lane,” was a far less interesting story, in that it had once
been two lanes, one named Guiguan (Ghost Gate) and the other Tizi
hutong (Ladder Lane). Where the “cloud” part of the name came from is
unclear, but Yunti (“cloud-ladder”) hutong is the name given to the
two lanes when they were united as one. The more interesting thing
here is what happened to the Ghost Gate. Apparently under the
Republican administration (1911-1949, not counting the Japanese
occupation of 1937-1945) there was a movement to make place names more
“elegant,” by which seems to have been meant more literary or even
just more upper-class. Ghost Gate, apparently marking the location of
some lost temple, was far too redolent of the folk tradition for the
ROC’s progressive self-image, and the name was changed to Guiguan (a
near-homonym with a different tone and different character), meaning
“noble gate.”

This movement to make Beijing’s placenames classier also, finally,
explains Picai hutong. I always had trouble remembering this one,
since it only really parses in classical Chinese - it’s not something
you’d ever say - and it’s even kind of weird-sounding in classical
Chinese. But it sounds very close to Pichai hutong (Woodsplitters’
Lane), which is far more idiomatic, and in fact is what I originally
thought the name of the lane to be until somebody set me straight.
The book I was reading said that in fact Woodsplitters’ Lane was the
original name, but again, during the ROC, it was decided that this
didn’t sound classy enough, so based on the nearby location of some
kind of school (I can’t remember which one) they changed it to Picai
hutong (Opening Talent Lane), which is awkward and hard to remember,
but at least it’s awkward in an elevated way.

The other place name I looked up was Moshikou - “Model Junction” -
which is the neighborhood where the Fahai Temple and the Beijing
Exhibition Hall of Eunuch Culture are located, out by the Capital
Steel plant in the western suburbs. When I first heard the place
name, I wondered whether it had been a village of model-makers, or
possibly mold-makers (as in carved wooden molds for rice cakes or moon
cakes or whatever). I remember travelling out there to see the temple
and the exhibition; it’s a nice little neighborhood with some pretty
older houses abutting a sunken lane. Oddly, I noticed a lot of round
millstones worked into the stonework of the houses here and there.
This isn’t uncommon, for disused worked stone to be reused in some
way, and you sometimes find some archaeological discoveries if you
look twice at the building materials of ordinary houses. But the
millstones, it turns out, are the key to Moshikou: its original name
was Moshikou (different tones and different characters), meaning
“Millstone Junction,” and was known since the Song dynasty as a center
of manufacture for grindstones. It was also the start of one of the
“ice canals,” man-made waterways by which building materials for the
Forbidden City were barged in on sledges over the ice in wintertime.
But once again, “Millstone Junction” wasn’t classy enough for the ROC
government, and it was rechristened “Model Junction” in the hopes that
it would serve as a model for other villages in the region.

What’s kind of striking about all this is how many of these name
changes tend to point up the division between spoken and written
Chinese usage. Literate Chinese people, and people who learn Chinese
as a foreign language, tend to think of the characters as
authoritative (because they persist across historical periods and
dialect boundaries) and the spoken word as transitory or prone to
alteration. It’s true that Chinese has so many homonyms that the
written characters are an important, though not the only, way of
disambiguating same-sounding words. But the impression I got from a
number of the entries I read in this book on place names was that a
lot of Beijing place names were spoken names first and foremost, and
the reason the characters used to write them varied over time was that
they weren’t originally fixed.

Haidian District, where I’m staying, is a good example; it means
something like “Lake Dock” district, for a large, shallow lake that
used to be in the area but was slowly filled in over time. But a Yuan
source, a diplomat recounting the route he took travelling north from
the capital, describes it as “Lake Station,” using another “dian”
which is pronounced exactly the same but written differently. It
looks like the name existed already in spoken usage, but it wasn’t
until someone wanted to write it down that a decision had to be made
about which “dian” was meant. This is compounded by the proliferation
of Mongolian and Manchu placenames around Beijing, the legacy of the
Yuan (Mongol) and Qing (Manchu) dynasties, which made their capitals
here. The word “hutong,” which I’ve rendered here as “lane,” is
actually totally meaningless in Chinese, if the meaning of the
characters is taken literally. It only makes sense if you know that
it’s an arbitrary Chinese transliteration of the Mongolian word
“hottog,” meaning “water well,” and indicating a residential lane
where all the residences share a water source. The ROC period changes
in place names represent a reworking of the spoken name of the street
or lane (often a significant reworking - none of the ROC updatings of
names I’ve described above involve perfect homonyms - there’s usually
at least a tone shift, which is a big deal to native speakers) so that
the written form, which in literate culture would be seen as the
“real” form of the name, reflected the image of a civilized and
modernizing Beijing. But in spoken usage, the name of the place
sometimes doesn’t change at all (cf. Moshikou), which leaves places
like this with a more tangible link to their past than perhaps the ROC
name-changers imagined.

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