‘Seoul’ in Chinese characters

Last year I noted that South Korea had decided to call upon China to use different Chinese characters to refer to “Seoul”. Judging by a Xinhua article, it looks like China has finally agreed. Taiwan had already approved the change.

So 汉城 (“Hànchéng” in Mandarin) is out, and 首尔 (“Shǒu’ěr” in Mandarin) is in. I’ve seen the spelling “Shouer” in several stories. The proper Pinyin spelling, however, is “Shou’er.” The apostrophe is not optional.

In traditional Chinese characters, 汉城 is written 漢城 and 首尔 is written 首爾.

While it is important to keep in mind that the etymologies of words/names and the etymologies of Chinese characters used to write them are not at all the same thing, it can be hard to overlook the characters. Thus, the desire for a different Chinese name isn’t mere caprice on the part of South Korea. The 漢 in 漢城 is used to refer to the Han people (i.e. “Chinese”). This is the same “Han” as in Hanzi (漢字 / Chinese characters) and Hanyu Pinyin (漢語拼音). The 城 means “city” (as in 城市 chéngshì). 城 is also used for “wall,” as in the walls that used to surround most Chinese cities (Xi’an’s wall is almost the only one left), and as in chángchéng (长城 / the Great Wall). (I’m not sure which meaning came first, so I don’t know which way that metonomy flows, as it were.) So using Hancheng for Seoul could be seen as labelling it a Chinese city.

And then there’s the fact that “Hancheng” doesn’t sound a thing like “Seoul.” The Chinese languages take a variety of approaches to rendering foreign place names.

The Xinhua article says “Hancheng” came from the fact that Seoul originated as a walled city on Korea’s Han River. Interestingly, the Chinese “Han” also originally referred to a river (a different one, in China). Later, Han was the name of a dynasty (206 B.C.E. to 220 C.E.). Then it became associated with the most populous ethnic group in China and the language.

source of China’s announcement: Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hànchéng shì Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”, Xinhua, October 23, 2005:

Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hànchéng shì Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”
Xīnhuá wǎng Běijīng 10 yuè 23 rì diàn (jìzhě tán jīngjīng) jìzhě 23 rì cóng yǒuguān bùmén huòxī, Zhōngguó jìnrì jiāng kāishǐ qǐyòng Hánguó shǒudū Hànchéng shì de Zhōngwén xīn yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”.
Hànchéng shì jīnnián 1 yuè xuānbù, jiāng gāi shì Zhōngwén yìmíng gǎiwéi “Shǒu’ěr”, Hán fāng xīwàng zài Zhōngguó yě shǐyòng zhè yīxīn yìmíng.
Cǐjiān zhuānjiā rènwéi, Hánguó shǒudū shǐyòng Zhōngwén yìmíng “Shǒu’ěr”, fúhé guójì guànlì, yě fúhé Zhōngguó yǒuguān wàiguó dìmíng fānyì shǐyòng guīdìng.
Shǒu’ěr lìshǐ yōujiǔ, gǔshí yīn wèiyú Hàn Jiāng zhī běi, démíng “Hànyáng”. 14 Shìjìmò Cháoxiǎn wángcháo dìngdū Hànyáng hòu, gǎimíng wéi “Hànchéng”.
Jìndài Cháoxiǎn Bàndǎo shòu Rìběn zhímín tǒngzhì qījiān, Hànchéng gǎichēng “Jīngchéng”.
1945 nián Cháoxiǎn Bàndǎo guāngfù hòu, gēngmíng wéi Cháoxiǎnyǔ gùyǒu cí, Luómǎ zìmǔ biāojì wéi “Seoul”, yǔyì wéi “shǒudū”.

2 thoughts on “‘Seoul’ in Chinese characters

  1. maybe i’m missing something; why is the apostrophe necessary in the romanization for ??? do the rules for apostrophes extend outside of the simple fact that some words need it in order to make distinctions between words that may look the same otherwise?

  2. I’ve often seen it said that apostrophes are inserted “to separate syllables in a word where ambiguity could arise.” But that makes it sound like a judgment call; it isn’t.

    I’ll quote from Chinese Romanization: Pronunciation and Orthography: “When a syllable beginning with a, o, or e appears in the middle of a polysyllabic word, it is preceded by an apostrophe” (p. 33). It gives a few examples: ke’ai, dang’an, hai’ou, and mu’er. The author notes “since very few syllables begin with a, o, or e, the apostrophe need only rarely be used.” This statement is supported by an analysis I requested of the entries in a large Mandarin-English dictionary: only 1.7 percent of headwords contained an apostrophe.

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