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Dueling Identities

Numerous Chinese cities have adopted tourist-friendly new names. Now the locals want the old ones back.


Dueling Identities

Numerous Chinese cities have adopted tourist-friendly new names. Now the locals want the old ones back.


Zhuge Liang, the famous politician, strategist, and all-round classy braniac from the Three Kingdoms era, is a treasured celebrity in China for obvious reasons.

Today, the “treasured” part is taken much more literally. In his essay “Northern Expedition Memorial”, Zhuge wrote that “I began as a common man, toiling in my fields in Nanyang (臣本布衣,躬耕于南阳).” But he probably never imagined that this one sentence would instigate a 100-year fight.

The cities of Nanyang, Henan Province, and Xiangyang, Hubei Province, have been fighting each other since the Qing Dynasty to be recognized as “the place where Zhuge Liang toiled”. Since 2,000 years had passed since Zhuge’s time, people couldn’t agree on where the ancient Nanyang that he referred to was. Both cities have some historical evidence to back up their claims, but the historical accuracy doesn’t really matter in this equation as much as—you guessed it—the tourist RMBs.

Since domestic tourism began to rise in the late 1980s and 90s, it has become a trend for many Chinese cities to change their names. They go after famous tourist attractions, celebrities, historical tales, and even commercial brands to raise their profile in the cutthroat tourist market. Though purists may weep, this strategy has proven to be wildly successful in many cases.

The city of Zhangjiajie, a prefecture-level city in the northwestern part of Hunan Province, was a typical example. Previously named Dayong (大庸), the city had a recorded history dating back to 221 B.C. It was renamed as Zhangjiajie in 1994 after the nearby Zhangjiajie National Forest Park in the Wulingyuan Scenic Area (武陵源), which had been designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1992. Nowadays, whenever the city is spoken of, what comes to mind is not a scrappy, dingy second-tier town, but towering sandstone pillars and ethereal mists; it’s a no-brainer choice.

The city of Shangri-La is another example. In the second half of the 20th century, Shangri-La had the unremarkable name of Zhongdian (中甸), which meant “middle pasture”. It was renamed in 2001 after the fictional kingdom in James Hilton’s 1933 novel Lost Horizon, and enraptured visitors began pouring in—who doesn’t want to say they’ve been to the lost paradise?

Elsewhere, Huairen City of Guizhou Province has proposed to renamed itself as Maotai City, after the famous local baijiu brand Moutai (Maotai in Chinese); Luyi County in Henan once proposed calling itself Laozi County, because it was where Laozi, the ancient Daoist philosopher, was born; Shuicheng County in Guizhou Province wanted to call itself Yelang (夜郎), because Yelang was the name of a lost kingdom that used to exist in western China.

As for the much older struggle between Nanyang and Xiangyang, the naming dispute actually went to court in the Qing Dynasty. But the then-magistrate of Nanyang, Gu Jiaheng, who was born in Hubei Province, couldn’t make his judgment. To quell the quarrel, he wrote a couplet, saying “心在朝廷,原无论先主后主;名高天下,何必辨襄阳南阳”, which roughtly meant that “Zhuge was loyal to the imperial court, no matter whether the emperor was Liu Bei or his son Liu Shan; Zhuge’s fame has spread all over under the heaven, so why is it necessary to say it’s Xiangyang or Nanyang?”

That’s just the kind of crafty cop-out that would have made Zhuge proud, but it but didn’t work at all. In 1990, when China Post issued a set series  of Three Kingdoms commemorative stamps, the two cities still fought to be the first place where the Zhuge-themed stamps were distributed. As a result, both were allowed to issue the stamps at the same time.

As might be expected, this kind of naked grasping for money and attention gets old. The city of Huangshan, Anhui Province, is seeing some of the backlash. The city was previously named Huizhou (徽州) and adopted the name Huangshan (Huang Mountain) in 1987 in order to ride the coattails of the local mountain, a destination so scenic that it inspired the saying, “A trip to China’s Five Great Mountains makes seeing other mountains unnecessary, but a trip to Huangshan makes seeing the Five Great Mountains unnecessary.”

The old name of Huizhou, however, had a history of more than 1,000 years. It still appears in all local historical tales about the region’s philosophical and artistic heritage, and is part of the name of the local merchant culture and local cuisine. Though the name literally means “Hui Prefecture”, following the place-naming conventions of its time, its long history and frequent appearance in literary works lend it a strong romantic color.

Earlier this year, Li Hui, a well-known writer, wrote in People’s Daily, appealing for the name Huizhou to be restored. Li’s appeal was echoed by Huangshan’s first mayor after its naming, Cui Zhikang, as well as much of the Chinese public, who take the pragmatic view that since the aim of boosting tourism and the local economy has been achieved, it’s time to own up to the charade and rediscover our cultural heritage. Though there is no sign that the city government will really approve this proposal, the locals have not lost hope.

Judging from the internet, the public’s main reason for preferring certain older names over newer ones is pure nostalgia. Comparing the current city names with their ancient counterparts, netizens conclude that those old ones are more traditional, more meaningful, and therefore more beautiful. According to an online survey, around 70 percent participants support that the city of Xi’an (西安, literally “western peace”) should go back to its ancient name Chang’an (长安, “everlasting peace”), because 长安 is believed to be more uniquely Chinese; many also feel that it “just sounds better”.

Some city names are despised because they invite ridicule. Shijiazhuang (石家庄), the capital city of Hebei Province, means either “stone home village”, or “Shi family village”. When people are informed that this region used to be called 常山(Changshan, or Chang Mountain), they felt angry—how could such a lovely name be changed into such a rustic one?

To be fair, Chang Mountain isn’t exactly a romantic name either. People love it just because it is related to another hero—Zhao Yun, or Zhao Zilong, a military general and a very popular character in The Romance of Three Kingdoms. In the book, every time before Zhao rode to battle, he would roar: “I am Zhao Zilong of Chang Mountain (吾乃常山赵子龙)!” which makes “Chang Mountain” sound heroic by association. It’s joked that if Zhao had said, “I am Zhao Zilong of Shijiazhuang!”, a city now known for migrant worker disputes and utter lack of historical importance, it would not have struck much fear into his enemies’ hearts.

It is understandable that in a country with such a long history, the Chinese public would look at the past with rose-tinted spectacles. However, there are practical prices to pay for nostalgia: it’s hugely inconvenient and expensive to replace the stamps and plaques of government departments with new ones, reprint the maps, and update all manners of official documents after restoring a place’s name. According to Huangshang News, a newspaper in Shaanxi, when the city of Xiangfan changed its name back to to the historical Xiangyang, the process cost as much as as 100 million RMB.

And apart from that, there is still one question: instead of fetishizing history for tourist money, are the locals now clinging to some romanticized version of their old identity?


Cover image from ctrip.com and qq.com