China Holds on to Geographical Memory
"Do not arbitrarily change old place names"
"Do not arbitrarily change old place names," this line jumped out from the 26th meeting of the central commission for deepening overall reform on June 22. Chairing the meeting, Chinese President Xi Jinping called for “centralized and unified leadership of the CPC Central Committee” to “ensure solid overall planning and avert unregulated and disorderly acts.”
It shows that China’s leadership has put their feet down on the reckless rebranding of historical places, a practice that went rampant in the past decades. The move arguably signaled another commitment to protecting historical heritage and boosting the awareness of cultural confidence, both ideas repeatedly featured in the official lines.
An excerpt from the meeting readout:
It is necessary to put the protection of historical and cultural heritage in a more important position. We should thoroughly study the historical experience of setting up administrative divisions in our country, and handle the renaming of administrative divisions with caution. Do not arbitrarily change old place names. It is necessary to maintain the overall stability of current administrative divisions. Do not adjust if unnecessary, do not modify if unsure, do not change if the timing is not ripe.
The tone-setting meeting took place some 50 days after the new version of Geographical Name Regulation地名管理条例, rolled out under a State Council decree, took effect. Compared to the original version, which had been active since 1986, the new regulation added fresh rules specifically banning name-altering of historical places：
The management of geographical names should be conducive to safeguarding national sovereignty and ethnic unity, promoting the core socialist values, promoting the modernization of the national governance system and capacity, and inheriting and developing the great Chinese culture…The place names which contain important historical and cultural values or reflect historical context of Chinese culture are in principle not allowed to be changed.
According to the second survey on national geographical names (2014-2018), more than 60,000 town names and 400,000 village names have been changed since 1986. This drive that took place since 1980s coincided with China’s opening and economic takeoff. Economic motivations, like simplification and tourism, were underlined during this trend.
Ironically, the name swicth that invited the widest and longest resent happened to China’s most touristy city, Huangshan黄山. In 1987, the prefecture of Huizhou徽州 was promoted as a prefecture-level city and simultaneously renamed after Mount Huangshan, a world-renowned attraction inscribed to the UNESCO world heritage list. The provincial authorities declared that the decision was crucial to “the protection, development and utilization of the scenic resources of Mount Huangshan.”
This move was deemed by many as a betrayal to the time-honored kaleidoscopic local traditions attached to Huizhou, which was also integral to the province’s name Anhui安徽. It was a decades-old feud, but the pain can still be felt. According to an online survey conducted by People’s Daily in 2016, 71.4 percent Chinese netizens are in favor of changing its name back. In 2017, Qian Niansun, a national legislator from Anhui Province, made a formal proposal to the National People’s Congress for Huizhou’s name rectification. Interestingly, Qian made the same argument that prompted Huangshan’s ascent 30 years ago, promoting tourism. Instead of singling out Mount Huangshan as a tourist destination, Qian regarded the entire Huizhou culture, including food, art, architecture, can be more compatible with the up-to-date tourism mode that emphasizes soaking-in experience.
However, the prospect of restoring Huizhou is dim. The local government of Huangshan has been adamant about maintaining status quo. In 2018, the then mayor made the first official response, saying that “Huizhou culture is strong enough not to be forgotten, whatever the name of the city.” Over 30 years into the new name, Huangshan City will find it extremely costly to switch it back, given it has already ranked the lowest in GDP among all prefectures in Anhui Province in 2022.
Even though, the extravaganza of Huangshan offers a negative example of messing with the historical legacy, which renders a stricter rule on place names more urgent than ever. A specific item in the 2022 version of Geographical Name Regulations addressed the lesson from Huangshan:
Do not use the names of well-known natural and geographical entities, historical and cultural heritage sites, or geographical entities beyond the scope of the administrative region in question as the names for administrative divisions.
Other than Huangshan, Zhangjiajie张家界 City of Hunan Province was also changed from its original name Dayong大庸 to a natural heritage site characterized by Karst landscape in 1994. Although Dayong dates back further over 3,000 years to an ancient dukedom, this name change caused much smaller indignation because it was not as culturally relevant today. Nevertheless, Zhangjiajie later triggered nationwide uproar. In 2010, a landmark mountain in Zhangjiajie national park was renamed as “Hallelujah Mountain” to draw its topographical resemblance to an icon in the Hollywood blockbuster Avatar. It was a smart marketing strategy if not slammed by many as self-degradation.
The new Geographical Name Regulations also signal red light to such moves:
Do not use the names of foreign people or places as place names.
Of course, it is still subject to dispute whether fictional foreign names count. And there is a rather successful practice in this regard. In 2001, Zhongdian中甸 County of Yunnan Province changed its name to Shangri-La香格里拉, a Himalayan xanadu invented in British novelist James Hilton’s best-seller Lost Horizon in 1930s. It catapulted an obscure rural county to a nation-renowned attraction, though this Shangri-La is 10-hour drive away from the provincial capital Kunming. The name used to serve orientalist imagination, and now people profit from it.
For better or for worse, the new rules are likely to put a brake to the name-changing rush that agitated the country since 1980s. The short-cut to reap economic benefit at the expense of geographical memory will be blocked. From now on, history might be the future.
(Subscribe to Sinical China for more original pieces to help you read Chinese news between the lines. Xu Zeyu, founder of Sinical China, is a senior correspondent with Xinhua News Agency, China’s official newswire. Follow him on Twitter @XuZeyu_Philip)
Disclaimer: The published pieces in Sinical China reflect only the personal opinions of the authors, and shall NOT be taken as Xinhua News Agency’s stance or perception.