That dateline may be unfamiliar. It sounds like a place just east of fabled Xanadu, which is appropriate, because what we have here is a new and important effort to add more mystery to that already confusing country, China.
Xianggang is Hong Kong, the city where I live, the same beautiful, raunchy spot familiar to many American travelers. But as of Jan. 1, the official New China News Agency and all other Peking government organs will render it Xianggang in a complete change of the way China identifies its names, places and favorite foods to foreigners.
The shift in Roman letter spelling systems is supposed to make it easier for foreigners to give the correct, Peking dialect pronunciation of things Chinese. Coming on the same day as official normalization with the United States, the change might be welcomed as an aid to togetherness, except that it is certain to drive people who followed the old Chinese spellings absolutely mad.
For those of us who earn a living flaunting our Chinese and claiming a unique grasp of the elusive soul of the People's Republic, this is a godsend. The China market has become uncomfortably crowded lately, and normalization will make it even more so. All kinds of people are getting visas to China and coming back with hotel-construction contracts, lichee nuts and, what's worse for us journalists, good stories.
So we are the first to applaud the Peking government for choosing this moment to junk the old, familiar Wades-Giles Romanization system and begin the new and confusing system called "Pinyin." Who but those few who have been initiated into the mysteries of the new system will be able to keep from getting hopelessly lost when the well-traveled journey from Canton to Peking becomes, under the new system, an unfamiliar trek from Guangzhou to Beijing?
Two important neighboring provinces of northern China are now known as Shensi and Shansi, not too hard to tell apart with practice. Under the Pinyin system, these two provinces must be rendered as Shanxi and... uh, Shanxi. The Chinese can tell the difference when they say the words because the first has a low tone on the first syllable and the second has a high tone on that syllable, but perhaps I shouldn't be giving out all this inside information. The Pinyin people have tried to meet this crisis by spelling the first province, in this special case, Shaanxi, but I don't think that will help much.
The Chinese characters for these two places are easily distinguished, but the Chinese want to move away from characters to Roman letters because it is impossible to design an efficient typewriter that will transmit 4,000 to 5,000 different characters. The old Romanization system was considered bad because it made it impossible for the casual foreign reader to pronounce Chinese words correctly, something that gave China-watchers much ammunition to fire on unsuspecting name-droppers.
My wife, a China-watcher for another newspaper, once had the satisfaction of correcting a distinguished correspondent for CBS News who had spoken the name of Vice Premier Teng Hsiao-ping. He pronounced "Teng" like the English word "tongue."
"actually, it's 'dung,' like the stuff cows leave behind," said my wife.
The network man was aghast: "But I tell you, I'm pronouncing it exactly as Walter does on the air!"
To save anchormen further embarrassment, the new system will spell the vice premier's name "Deng Xiaoping." That may help a bit, although I'd like to be watching when Walter, John or Peter first confront the names of other politburo members, such Zhao Ziyang or Xu Xiangquian.
The new system does eliminate the old system's idiotic way of distinguishing aspirated and unaspirated consonants with an apostrophe. People were supposed to know that K'ao was pronounced "Kao" while Kao was pronounced "Gao," but most newspapers ignored the apostrophes and heightened the confusion. The Pinyin word for the Chinese capital, Beijing, does come much closer to correct pronunciation than the old word, Peking.
Another problem remains. Many years ago my first Chinese professor began her first class by handing out mimeographed copies of a complicated story about a man who ate stone lions. Below the English version we found, to our horror, the same story rendered in Romanized Chinese. It went "Shih Shih Shih Shih Shih Shih Shih..." and so on, an entire story told with one sound. The only way even a Chinese could make sense of it, without seeing the actual Chinese characters, was to hear it read with each sound given one of the our Chinese tones, which are (roughly) high, rising, low or falling. A few students in that class did not return the next day.
The new Pinyin system does not solve this problem at all, witness the case of the two Shanxi provinces. And how is a layman to know that Pinyin's "Zh" should be pronounced like a "J" and a Pinyin "Q" like a "Ch"?
American new organizations, while rushing to apply for bureaus in Peking, have been less than enthusiastic about the new official spelling system. Colleagues from AP and UPI say they are sticking with the old system for the time being. The New York Times man here said his newspaper would adopt Pinyin, but he told me this at the end of a long lunch, so he may not have known what he was saying.
The cabled response from my editor, an Africa specialist who has often corrected my spelling of Muammar Qaddafi, seemed rater brusque: "Please, please, please , let's not tamper with our Chinese spellings."
I considered reminding him that "conditions are changing all the time," a quote from Chairman Mao Tse-tung. Or was that Mao Zedong?