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Typing Chinese in Western characters

How We Got From Peking To Beijing

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Speakers of Western languages find Chinese hard to learn. The most obvious reasons are its non-phonetic writing and the fact that word meaning depends on changes in vocal pitch (which makes it a little like singing).

The U.S. State Department estimates that 500 hours of instruction are needed to acquire a working knowledge of European languages -- but that 2,400 hours are needed to get the same level of skill in Chinese. If you study Chinese at a university for three years, you'll get about 500 hours -- so that's barely a start.

Even Chinese people, of course, have trouble connecting their spoken language with the non-phonetic written language. One tool they use is Pinyin, which writes spoken Chinese using the Western European alphabet.

If you wondered how people can write Chinese using a Western computer, it requires a special software keyboard. Both Windows and Mac computers have them. When you type something in Pinyin, the software gives you a list of characters that match what you typed. Many characters are pronounced the same way, so the lists are long and you must know which character to pick (see the figure at the top of this blog post). It works the same way if you're typing on a smartphone keyboard.

The government of mainland China (the People's Republic of China, or PRC) created Pinyin in the 1960s. Before then, the most popular English transliteration of Chinese was Wade-Giles, named after the British diplomats who created it in the 19th century.

Taiwan (the Republic of China, or ROC), where Chinese nationalists fled after the Communists won the Chinese civil war in 1949, still uses Wade-Giles. Taiwan also uses traditional Chinese characters instead of the simplified characters adopted by the mainland. However, about 90 percent of Chinese characters are the same in both traditional and simplified form.

Older books and articles call the PRC's capital "Peking," which is the Wade-Giles transliteration of Pinyin's "Beijing" (北京, "northern capital").

And that is how we got from Peking to Beijing.