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You Know More Chinese Than You Think You Do

Seeing the great interest in China on this site, I am going to try to teach some of you to "speak" Chinese, using as far as possible, words that are in common use. That's because Chinese place names are usually descriptive of what they are, the way Old English might have been at one time.

Everyone knows that the capital of the country is Beijing, right? It should not be surprising that the word "jing," means capital. The word "bei" means north. Then Beijing means "northern capital." It was actually the capital of choice of the Mongolian ruler, Kublai Khan, who had inherited China as his main holding from his grandfather, Genghis Khan.

"Nan" means south, and the city formerly spelled Nanking (as Beijing used to be spelled Peking) is now spelled Nanjing. So it means "southern capital."

There is an "eastern capital," Dongjing (dong means east). But it is actually in Japan, and is the city that the Japanese call Tokyo. Even though it's not part of China, Japan did try to make it the "capital" of China during World War II.

There is no Xijing or western capital. The nearest thing is Xian, the home of the terra cotta army, which was an ancient capital of China, which means western peace (Xi=west, an=peace). So maybe there was a western "capital" after all.

Do you like Lake Tong Ting shrimp? Particularly in spicy Hunan sauce? Well, Hu is a reference to the lake (Tong Ting), and Hunan is the province south of that lake. And Hubei is the province north of the lake.


Similarly, He means river, and Henan is the province south of the (Yellow) River, while Hebei is north of it. (In Chinese, the natural feature comes first, then the direction, so they would say Lake North or River South instead of north of the lake or south of the river.)

Likewise, Shan means mountain, and Shandong and Shanxi are provinces east and west of the mountains of north China.

Shang means "up" or "upon" and hai means "sea" so Shanghai means what it says, (the city) "on the sea."

On the other hand, Tai means platform, and wan means bay, and "Taiwan" is a platform (island) above the bay.

Tomorrow, words in restaurants.