Chinese postal romanization

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Chinese postal romanization
1947 Zhonghua Minguo Quantu.png
A map of China with romanizations published in 1947.
Chinese 郵政式拼音
Literal meaning Postal-style romanization system

Postal romanization[1] was a system of transliterating Chinese place names developed by the Imperial Post Office in the early 1900s. The system was in common use until the 1980s.

For major cities and other places that already had widely accepted European names, traditional spellings were retained.[2] With regard to other place names, the post office revised policy several times. Spellings given could reflect local pronunciation, Nanjing pronunciation, or Beijing pronunciation. Although pronunciation-based arguments were made for each of these options, using postal romanization to determine any form of Chinese pronunciation was limited by the fact that the system dropped out all dashes, diacritics, and apostrophes to facilitate telegraphic transmission.[2]

At a conference held in 1906 in Shanghai, the post office selected a system of romanization developed by Herbert Giles called "Nanking syllabary."[2] Although Beijing dialect had served as a national standard since the mid-19th century, the system adopted was based on Nanjing pronunciation. French-appointed administrators ran the post office at this time, and they considered this system to be a less Anglicized alternative to Wade-Giles.


An imperial edict issued in 1896 renamed the Maritime Customs Post, reorganized this agency as a national postal service, and established the Imperial Post Office. In 1899, Robert Hart, as inspector general of posts, asked postmasters to submit romanizations for their districts. Although Hart asked for transliterations “according to the local pronunciation,” most postmasters were reluctant to play lexigrapher and simply looked up the relevant characters in a dictionary. The spellings they submitted generally followed a system created by Thomas Wade, now called the Wade-Giles system. This system had been developed in 1859 and was based on Beijing pronunciation. It became the standard method of romanizing Chinese after Herbert Giles published a dictionary using the system in 1892.[3] The post office published a draft romanization map in 1903.[4]

Disappointed with this Wade-based map, Hart made another attempt to promote localism in 1905. He directed the postmasters to submit romanizations, "not as directed by Wade, but according to accepted or usual local spellings." Local missionaries could be consulted on this point, Hart suggested. Yet Wade's system did reflect pronunciation in most areas served by the post office, or at least in Mandarin-speaking areas.[5] A more serious disadvantage was that the French viewed Wade's system as Anglophone. The top position in the post office was held by Postal Secretary Théophile Piry. Piry had been appointed in 1901 due in part to the influence of the French government. Until 1911, the post office remained part of the Maritime Customs Service. As customs inspector general, Hart was Piry's boss. But French backing effectively gave Piry a postal fiefdom.[2]

1906 conference[edit]

Piry responded to Hart's moves by organizing an Imperial Postal Joint-Session Conference in Shanghai in the spring of 1906. As this was a joint postal and telegraphic conference, it allowed Piry go over Hart's head. The conference resolved that existing spellings would be retained for all names already transliterated. Accents, apostrophes, and hyphens would be dropped to facilitate telegraphic transmission. The requirement that addresses be given in Chinese characters was also dropped. For fresh transliteration, local pronunciation would be followed in Guangdong, as well as in parts of Guangxi and Fujian. In other areas, a system called Nanking syllabary would be used.

Nanking syllabary was presented by Giles in his Dictionary.[6] Despite the name, the system was not tied any one city, but was based on "Southern Mandarin." Southern Mandarin is an idealized form of the Jianghuai dialect spoken in the lower Yangtze region. Jianghuai is a divergent form of Mandarin that is widely spoken in both Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. In Giles' idealization, the speaker consistently makes various phonetic distinctions not made in Beijing dialect (or, for that matter, in the dialect of any specific city). Giles created the system to encompass a range of dialects. It also corresponds roughly to traditional romanizations such as "Peking" and "Nanking." These romanizations were created by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th century, when Nanjing dialect was a lingua franca. The selection of Nanking syllabary did not suggest that the post office was treating Nanjing pronunciation as standard. The principle advantage of the system was that it allowed, “the romanization of non-English speaking people to be met as far as possible,” as Piry put it.[2] Atlases explaining postal romanization were issued in 1907, 1919, 1933, and 1936. The divided and nuanced result of the 1906 conference led critics to complain that postal romanization was idiosyncratic.[2] According to modern scholar Lane J. Harris:

What they have criticized is actually the very strength of postal romanization. That is, postal romanization accommodated local dialects and regional pronunciations by recognizing local identity and language as vital to a true representation of the varieties of Chinese orthoepy as evinced by the Post Office’s repeated desire to transcribe according to “local pronunciation” or “provincial sound-equivalents.”[2]

Later developments[edit]

"Prompted" by a 1919 Ministry of Education decision to teach Beijing dialect in elementary schools, the post office briefly reverted to Wade's system in 1920-1921. This was the era of the May Fourth Movement, when language reform was the rage and Beijing dialect was promoted as a national standard. The post office adopted a dictionary by W. E. Soothill as its standard reference.[7] While the Soothill-Wade system was adopted for newly created offices, all existing romanizations were retained.

China's internal politics did not override Anglo-French rivalry for long. In December 1921, Co-Director Henri Picard-Destelan quietly ordered a return to Nanking syllabary, "until such time as uniformity is possible." Although the Soothill-Wade period was brief, it was a time when 13,000 offices were created—a rapid and unprecedented expansion. At the time the policy was reversed, one third of all postal establishments used Soothill-Wade spelling.[2]

In 1943, the Japanese ousted A.M Chapelain, the last French head of the Chinese post. The post office had been under French administration almost continuously since Piry's appointment as postal secretary in 1901.[8]

The Chinese Communists seized power in 1949 and announced the abolition of postal romanization in 1964. All the same, the system remained in commom use until the 1980s. China Daily, an official English-language news source, adopted pinyin romanization in 1981. This system in was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982.[9] Postal romanization remained official in Taiwan until 2002, when Tongyong pinyin was adopted.

Main features[edit]

The main features of the system include:

  • No diacritics or accent marks.
  • Several distinctions made are peculiar to Southern Mandarin:
  • In some cases, tsi and ki correspond to pinyin ji:
Tientsin (Tianjin), Tsinan (Jinan)
Fukien (Fujian), Heilungkiang (Heilongjiang), Kiangsu (Jiangsu), Kinchow (Jinzhou), Kirin (Jilin), Nanking (Nanjing), and Peking (Beijing).
  • In other cases, tsi and ki correspond to pinyin qi:
Chungking (Chongqing)
Tsingtao (Qingdao) and Tsinghai (Qinghai).
  • Well-established traditional spellings are retained, even if irregular:
Canton (Guangzhou), Chefoo (Yantai), Foochow (Fuzhou), Soochow (Suzhou), Chinkiang (Zhenjiang), Chinwangtao (Qinhuangdao), and Woosung (Wusong).
  • Local dialect may be used:
Amoy (Xiamen), Swatow (Shantou), and Quemoy (Jinmen)
  • Si corresponds to pinyin xi:
Kwangsi (Guangxi), Sian (Xi'an), Sinkiang (Xinjiang), Shansi (Shanxi), and Sining (Xining).
  • Unless it is the sole vowel in the syllable, w is used instead of pinyin u:
Ankwo (Anguo), Kinchow (Jinzhou)
  • Kw corresponds to pinyin gu:
Kwangtung (Guangdong), Kwangsi (Guangxi)
  • -eh corresponds to pinyin e (schwa)
Chengteh (Chengde), Pehkiao (Beiqiao).
  • Final uh corresponds to pinyin u:
Wensuh (Wensu)
  • T corresponds to pinyin D:
Shantung (Shandong), Kwangtung (Guangdong), and Tsingtao (Qingdao)
  • P corresponds to pinyin B
Hupeh (Hubei), Peking (Beijing)

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Postal Romanization, Taipei: Directorate General of Posts, 1961.
  2. ^ a b c d e f g h Harris, Lane. "A 'Lasting Boon to All': A Note on the Postal Romanization of Place Names, 1896–1949." Twentieth Century China, 34, no. 1 (2008): 96–109.
  3. ^ Giles, Herbert, A Chinese-English Dictionary, 1892.
  4. ^ China Postal Working Map (1903)
  5. ^ This map shows where the various dialects of Chinese are spoken. Both Wade-Giles and pinyin are based on Northern Mandarin, which is shown in red. Although this is often called "Beijing dialect," both systems leave out language features that are local to Beijing.
  6. ^ This refers to the first edition of Giles' dictionary, published in 1892. The second edition, published in 1912, drops Nanking syllabary. Instead, it gives romanizations for nine separate dialects, including that of Yangzhou. Yangzhou is a neighboring city to Nanjing. Both cities use the Jianghuai dialect.
  7. ^ William Edward Soothill (1908). The student's four thousand tzu and general pocket dictionary
  8. ^ The only break in French control of the post office was 1928-1931, when Norwegian Erik Tollefsen was foreign head.
  9. ^ "ISO 7098:1982 – Documentation – Romanization of Chinese". Retrieved 2009-03-01.


  • China Postal Album: Showing the Postal Establishments and Postal Routes in Each Province. 1st ed. Shanghai: Directorate General of Posts, 1907.
  • China Postal Album: Showing the Postal Establishments and Postal Routes in Each Province. 2nd ed. Peking: Directorate General of Posts, 1919.
  • China Postal Atlas: Showing the Postal Establishments and Postal Routes in Each Province. 3th ed. Nanking: Directorate General of Posts, 1933.
  • China Postal Atlas: Showing the Postal Establishments and Postal Routes in Each Province. 4th ed. Nanking: Directorate General of Posts, 1936.
  • Postal Romanization, Taipei: Directorate General of Posts, 1961.
  • Playfair, G. M. H. The Cities and Towns of China: A Geographical Dictionary. 2nd. ed. Shanghai: Kelly & Walsh Ltd., 1910.
  • "Yóuzhèng shì pīnyīn" (邮政式拼音) Zhōngguó dà bǎikē quánshū: Yuyán wénzì (中国大百科全书:语言文字). Beijing: Zhōngguó dà bǎikē quánshū chūbǎnshè (中国大百科全书出版社), 1998.