My husband and I went to the southern city of Xiamen a few years ago for a conference about search engines. Both the conference and the city were winners. I especially liked our walking tour of little Gulangyu Island, a short ferry ride from Xiamen, where we strolled through the small lanes, stumbling upon friendly musical concerts performed in lovely old colonial buildings.
I made one mention of Xiamen in my book, Dreaming in Chinese, and recorded the first character as 下 instead of 厦. Trouble!! Or so thought a few readers, who kindly (or not so kindly) pointed this out to me. Wrong!! They said. Wrong character choice!
That sent me searching. And here’s the scoop, which I report with many thanks to Art Kho, whose Hokkien/Minnan-speaking family (his grandparents) hails from Xiamen.
According to Wikipedia, (And hey! Wikipedia is never wrong!) the earliest rendering of Xiamen is with a 下 , meaning literally "lower gate". This could make sense: Xiamen lies at the mouth of the Jiulong (Nine Dragon) River, so Xiamen could be named for its at the "lower gate” to the sea.
At some point later, the rather unlovely name for Xiamen was upgraded, by one quick swap of the first character from 下 to 厦. Xiamen suddenly meant the much more glamorous "gate of the grand mansion".
Interestingly, in the Minnan/Hokkien dialect still spoken around Xiamen, Kho reports, the city still goes by its original name of (roughly pronounced) Amoy. The pronunciation of the first character 下 is a much closer rendering to the current Hokkien pronunciation of Amoy than is the pronunciation of the character 厦 . Kho says 厦 sounds more like “ha”. So actually, 下 is a better choice, closer to the true pronunciation.
A happy ending: everyone is right!
(image and Wikipedia information from amoymagic.com)