Posted by: rbbadger | August 7, 2008

Olympics and other Sinological Musings

Tomorrow, the 2008 Summer Olympics are set to begin in Beijing.  I don’t know if I will actually get around to watching the Opening Ceremonies, but if the descriptions of the elaborate ceremonies celebrating the respective handovers of Hong Kong and Macau are to be believed, then it will be something quite spectactular indeed.  The Chinese Communist Party is quite good at orchestrating huge patriotic events, so the show promises to be spectacular.  I am hoping for a good showing by Chinese Taipei (the name that the Republic of China (Taiwan) is forced to compete under), South Korea, and of course the home team back in the USA. 

The Korean television channel SBS (run by the Seoul Broadcasting System) has run into trouble with the Chinese State authorities.  Apparently, they managed somehow to snap video of some of the practices of the opening ceremonies and broadcast them.  Needless to say, those living and working in Zhongnanhai (中南海, residence of the most senior officials of the People’s Republic) weren’t pleased.

China and the Chinese language has long interested the West, mostly because it all seems so strange and exotic.  In reading the works of linguists concerned with Asian linguistics, those working in Chinese have often looked enviously at scholars of Japanese and Korean who have alphabets and syllabaries to work with.  I am very interested in all things Chinese, but the language itself seems quite daunting.  The grammar doesn’t look that difficult, especially in comparison to some languages of my acquaintance (such as Russian, Latin, and Greek).  But that being said, the writing system is a major hurdle to be overcome, not only by foreigners learning the language but for the Chinese themselves.  David Moser, a Sinologist, has gotten a sort of perverse joy in noting down the Chinese characters that even native Chinese speakers forget (see  One prominent Chinese scholar, Qian Xuantong, even proposed giving up the Chinese language entirely for something easier, like Esperanto.  In the heady early days of the Republic of China, proposals were even considered to come up with a phonetic script and unifying the pronunciation of Chinese.  This script invented in the early 20th century is used to teach Mandarin to children in Taiwan today.  However, despite these aids, such as Zhuyin Fuhao in Taiwan and Hanyu Pinyin in the mainland, they are seen as only a stepping stone to real reading and writing which are, of course, Chinese characters.  King Sejong’s magnificent invention of hangeul was seen for years by the upper class as only a means for learning the Chinese characters. 

Almost every city and town in Korea has its name in both Chinese characters and the Korean alphabet (hangeul).  The big exception (and it is a huge exception to be sure) is Seoul.  While my own little town (100,000 people) of Namyangju can be written 南陽州, Seoul lacks an official name in Chinese characters, that is until recently.  For a while during the Joseon era, it was known as Hanseong (漢城).  But this is not the official name of the city.  Officially, it would appear as 서울特別市.  However, up until 2005, the Chinese press in Taiwan and China would refer to Seoul as Hanseong or Hancheng in Chinese.  In 2005, the Seoul Metropolitan Government decided to select some characters to represent Seoul, but in a way that would reflect the Mandarin Chinese pronunciation only.  Thus, the characters 首爾 were selected to be the official Chinese name of Seoul, pronounced in Mandarin as Shou’er.  These characters are not at all pronounced like this in Korean, much less in Cantonese (language spoken in Southern China and Hong Kong).  首爾 is pronounced soo-ee (수이) in Korean and sau2 yi5 in Cantonese.  (The numbers indicate which tones are supposed to be used.)  Thus, the name of the city remains Seoul and not Su-I.  The new semi-official Chinese name is meant to be used by Mandarin speakers only.


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