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  • A “Lasting Boon to All”: A Note on the Postal Romanization of Place Names, 1896–1949
  • Lane J. Harris (bio)

Prior to the general acceptance of Hanyu pinyin (汉语拼音 ) as the governing transliteration system for Chinese in the mid-1980s, the Wade-Giles system predominated for fifty years except in the spelling of place names.1 Shortly after the establishment of the modern Imperial Post Office (大清郵政總局 Da Qing youzheng zongju) in 1896 it became the toponymic authority for the spelling of place names through its postal style romanization system (郵政式拼音 youzheng shi pinyin), which was carried on in the Republican era (1912–1949) by the Directorate General of Posts (郵政總局 Youzheng zongju). In the early twentieth century, then, Western scholars, cartographers, journalists, and foreign governments commonly employed Wade-Giles for general terms, but maintained Chinese postal spellings for place names.

Upon opening its doors to the general public in 1897 the Imperial Post Office encountered mail matter addressed to and from foreigners living in China using a wide variety of transliteration systems. The dissimilarity in spellings resulted from the existence of numerous romanization systems representing local dialect pronunciations, transcriptions of different regional varieties of Mandarin (官話 guanhua), and Chinese orthoepy as interpreted through different European languages. The Imperial Post Office attempted to solve these transliteration problems by creating postal style romanization.

Postal romanization eased the burden on postal clerks and ensured the prompt and correct delivery of mail matter by requiring the foreign public, overseas Chinese, and international postal patrons to adopt standardized postal spellings, thereby protecting the reputation of the Post Office. Creating the postal romanization system and establishing itself as the official toponymic authority, however, did not eliminate all of the thorny problems inherent in formulating an entire romanization system. The Post Office still had to decide among local pronunciations, a specific regional pronunciation of spoken Mandarin, and between orthographically English or [End Page 96] other European-language representations of those sounds. Prior to 1905 the orthographically English system of Sir Thomas Francis Wade (威妥瑪 1818–1895) based on a Beijing pronunciation of Mandarin and containing some local dialect spellings predominated. Between 1905 and early 1920, the Post Office adopted Herbert A. Giles’ (翟理斯 1845–1935) “Nanking syllabary” but maintained the older Wade spellings and those stemming from local dialects.2 Continued inconsistencies in transcriptions forced the Directorate General to switch back to Wade’s system in 1920. Less than two years later, however, the rapid multiplication of variant transliterations compelled the Directorate to reverse its decision. Between December 1921 and 1949 the Directorate returned to Nanjing Mandarin pronunciations as “the best” for the Post Office while maintaining some local dialect spellings.

At least one latter-day scholar has assailed the Post Office for introducing so-called irregularities into postal romanization because of its use of a combination of local dialects, Nanjing and Beijing pronunciations of Mandarin, and the retention of some pre-existing romanizations and ancient usages.3 What they have criticized is actually the very strength of postal romanization. That is, postal romanization accommodated local dialects and regional pronunciations by recognizing local identity and language as vital to a true representation of the varieties of Chinese orthoepy as evinced by the Post Office’s repeated desire to transcribe according to “local pronunciation” or “provincial sound-equivalents.”4 Both Hanyu pinyin and amalgamated Wade-Giles, by contrast, employ a northern Mandarin that ignores the realities of pronunciation differences and thus local identity and language across China. Although imperfect and often perplexing, postal romanization was the only early twentieth-century national transliteration system that even attempted to integrate both northern and southern Mandarin pronunciations, local dialects, and popularly established usages. [End Page 97]

Early Years Using the Wade System, 1899–1905

When the modern Imperial Post Office was established under the auspices of the foreign-controlled Imperial Maritime Customs Service (海關總稅務司署 Haiguan zong shuiwu sishu) in 1896, there was no generally accepted transliteration system for Mandarin pronunciation. Instead, missionaries, sinologists, foreign traders, and foreign governments created and used a heterogeneous mix of transliteration systems, each with its own strengths and weaknesses, that vied for public acceptance. This bewildering array of choices led one long-term foreign resident of central China in the nineteenth century to...


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