Wednesday, February 2, 2011

Xiamen with a 下 , Xiamen with a 厦

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 instead of . 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 , 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 to  . 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 is a much closer rendering to the current Hokkien pronunciation of Amoy than is the pronunciation of the character . Kho says   sounds more like “ha”. So actually,   is a better choice, closer to the true pronunciation. 

A happy ending: everyone is right!

(image and Wikipedia information from  amoymagic.com)

10 comments:

  1. When I was on a destroyer in 1954 patrolling off of Quemoy we called it Amoy too. I think in pre-Pinyin days it showed up on maps as Amoy. - Jim DeVries

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  2. The mdbg dictionary give 大廈 (大厦) for mansion or large building e.g., 世貿大廈 (Shì Mào Dàshà), the World Trade Center, and 金茂 大廈 (Jīn Mào Dàshà), Jin Mao Tower, but in that use, the pinyin is dàshà, not dàxià, a not-so-subtle distinction in pronunciation. Perhaps a native speaker could confirm.

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  3. We lived in Xiamen for three years and have to say with the travel we did in China, we were so glad we ended up living on our island.

    Gu Lang Yu has applied for a World Heritage site, and certainly hope that they receive this designation, as it is well deserved.

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