When describing the city in China, is the spelling "Nanjing" as likely to be understood by the general population of native English speakers as "Nanking" is?

An examination of Google NGrams indicates that "Nanjing" has recently overtaken "Nanking", but I suspect that what people who write books use, and what ordinary people use, are two different things.

  • From Wikipedia: "Nanjing widely romanized as Nankin and Nanking until the Pinyin language reform, after which Nanjing was gradually adopted as the standard spelling of the city's name in most languages that use the Roman alphabet."
    – Matt
    Apr 14 '13 at 13:28

I believe Nanjing is more popular now and widely used. Below passage is extracted from Wikipedia with a slight alteration in italic.

Its present name(Nanjing) means "Southern Capital" and was widely romanized as Nankin and Nanking until the Pinyin language reform, after which Nanjing was gradually adopted as the standard spelling of the city's name in most languages that use the Roman alphabet.

  • 2
    +1. You might want to point out that a consequence of this is that the word Nanking is now only used in the historic context of the city (for example The Treaty of Nanking and the Massacre of Nanking). The correct term for the city in its modern context is now always Nanjing.
    – Matt
    Apr 14 '13 at 13:26
  • Yes, that's right as the standard spelling in Pinyin is Nanjing.
    – canoe
    Apr 14 '13 at 13:41
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    +1, Personal experience: I'm 25 years old, native English speaker, lived in the US my whole life. The name "Nanking" doesn't sound familiar at all, but I do recognize "Nanjing" as a Chinese city, although I wouldn't be able to point it out on a map.
    – Izkata
    Apr 14 '13 at 16:25
  • @Izkata that's the kind of info I was hoping for. Thanks! Apr 14 '13 at 21:32
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    @AndrewGrimm I on the other hand am 65 and know Nanking from The Rape of ...; I wouldn't know Nanjing was the same place if I hadn't rented a room for several years from a student of Chinese who was a translator and Geo-names Specialist for the US Defense Mapping Agency! Apr 14 '13 at 21:57

I regret to say that in the US “ordinary people” probably have no occasion to use either. Americans’ knowledge of even their own geography is extraordinarily poor.

I’d be willing to bet that if you picked ten people off a US street and asked them to name all the Chinese cities they’d heard of you’d get three: Beijing (older folks might say Peking or Peiping), because they hear that regularly on the news, and Shanghai and Hong Kong, because those show up in lots of movies. Perhaps the generation which went through WWII will know more; but there are very few of them left.

In any case, what you want to look at it is not what’s in books, but what’s on the news; and I think most broadcast, cable and internet sources use the Pinyin spellings these days.

  • I think Nanjing sits right on the border of recognizability - the average US citizen might not think of it, but they'd probably recognize it if they heard it.
    – Izkata
    Apr 14 '13 at 16:19
  • @Izkata True; but I seriously doubt whether they'd know where in China it is. Apr 14 '13 at 16:21
  • I'd say the same of Shanghai and Hong Kong; they may be used in a lot of movies, but as far as I know, it's rare for them to show an actual map in the movie.
    – Izkata
    Apr 14 '13 at 16:23
  • @Izkata They'd know they're seaports, which is something (but not much). Apr 14 '13 at 16:26
  • @StoneyB I myself only know which country it's in, not where in China it is. Apr 14 '13 at 21:36

Many old romanizations are ad-hoc renderings based on Cantonese or whatever the local language of the city is/was as perceived by native speakers of various European languages, whereas the new ones are based on the modern, standardized Mandarin Chinese romanization system known as pinyin. The US started using the Mandarin version officially around the same time as recognizing the Peoples Republic of China in the 1970s. The old ones are still around in various places, including the names of many Chinese restaurants in the US. They're even used by Chinese people in China into recent years, such as the name of "Canton Tower" even though the English-language name of the city is Guangzhou now. Most likely, many Americans think that Peking, Beijing, Canton, Guangzhou, Nanking, and Nanjing are 6 different cities.


In Chinese, "Nan" means south, and "jing" means capital, so Nanjing means southern capital. If you understand this, you shouldn't have difficulty recognizing "Nanking" as a variant of Nanjing.

In contrast, Bei means north, so Beijing means northern capital. But in the old "romanization" system, it was rendered as "Peking."

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    Most native English speakers don't try to learn Chinese. Apr 14 '13 at 21:37
  • @AndrewGrimm: The ones that are interested in Nanjing OUGHT to (try to learn Chinese). But you're right, most English speakers don't. (Especially the ones that aren't interested in Nanjing.)
    – Tom Au
    Apr 14 '13 at 22:04
  • And Tō-kyō (coined from Japanese versions of Chinese roots) means ‘East Capital’. Is there a West Capital? Aug 20 '19 at 0:37

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