Thursday, March 15, 2012

Taiwan's strange and beautiful place names (Culture.tw)

Years ago, while backpacking around India, I was disappointed when I found out that the exotic-sounding name of the country's most populous state, Uttar Pradesh, meant merely "Northern Province." In Taiwan, my experience has been just the opposite. My fascination with place names - which were at first difficult to pronounce yet meaningless - has grown as my Chinese reading skills have improved.

I quickly learned that the names of three of Taiwan's four main cities - Taipei, Taichung and Tainan - describe their positions on the island. Taipei (台北, Táiběi in hanyu pinyin) means "north Taiwan," Taichung (台中, Táizhōng) is "central Taiwan" while Tainan (台南) means "south Taiwan."

Gazing at maps of the island, I began to wonder why Nangang (南港, a district of Taipei City whose name means "south harbor") is in Taiwan's north, while Beigang (北港, "north harbor") is 200km south-southwest of the capital. Later, I came across an explanation: Centuries ago, Beigang was known to its aboriginal inhabitants as Ponkan. Han Chinese wrote this down using the characters 笨港; pronounced Bèngǎng in Mandarin, they mean "stupid harbor." When Japan took control of Taiwan in 1895, they thought the name was unsuitable, and replaced the character for "stupid" with the one meaning "north."

Many other towns and districts were renamed during Japanese rule, which lasted until 1945. Kaohsiung (高雄) was called Takau (打狗, often spelled Takao and occasionally Dagou) until the colonial authorities decided in 1920 that the written form – the two Chinese characters mean "beat the dog" - was unworthy of a rapidly-developing center of industry and shipping...

The complete article has just appeared on this website. The photo here show Guanyinshan, a mountain in New Taipei City's Bali District named after Guanyin, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

2 comments:

Andrew Kerslake said...

Actually, a lot of place names were changed during the Qing administration to "transform" the Feng-shui of the area.

Naming was essential to transforming the character of a location. So if you were having trouble in an area and wanted to calm the rebellious nature of the population, just change the name to something peaceful.

Lots of place names are indigenous names translated into Taiwanese, and then later Mandarin. Often, this jump is missed and locals will craft stories out of the new names.

Steven Crook... said...

Re renaming troublesome districts, I heard about this but couldn't find any clear examples. Can you tell me a few?