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[Anniversary 2016] And the word has been with Beida

MAY . 04 2016

Peking University, May 4, 2013: As British Prime Minister David Cameron was speaking at Beijing Daxue, or Peking University (PKU/Beida), his press handlers were too wary not to err. 

And they did. Hours after the speech, the Downing Street website was reporting that their boss spoke to students at the "Beida University." Rather good as it was – timely update, authentic English, with full text of the transcript. Only were they flummoxed – grilled by an Economist article – by the English name(s) of the university. 

Wording matters.

The above is the beginning part of a 2011 feature story "'In the beginning was the word'" on the university's official English names over the past century.

It ends: With the popular acronym “PKU” since the late 1990s, Peking University is more widely recognized in international communications as "Beida" ("Peita" before the pinyin spelling was applied) – the transliteration of its Chinese nickname.

But it has not solved the problem of press handlers at the Number 10 Downing Street: Why popular abbreviation Beida plus University err.

Along with the university's "ups and downs in its over 100 years’ history," again, its English abbreviation "has changed several times."

"Imperial University" - The Imperial University of Peking (1898-1912)  



"Peking University" is also used to refer to the imperial university, such as a North China Herald report dated September 19, 1898:


The Grand Secretary Sun Chia-nai has appointed a Committee of four Metropolitan officers to visit Japan and examine the schools and universities in that country, in order to get information how to manage the proposed Peking University and lower grade colleges.

 "Peking University" used to refer to Yanjing Daxue (English title changed to Yenching University in the 1920s) as well:





 "Government University" - The Government University of Peking (1912-1919)



However, when the university officially adopted its English title "National University of Peking" in 1919, there had been several "national universities" overseen by the Education Ministry. The term "national university" therefore did not refer in particular to this university.



"Peita" (Beida) - The Government University of Peking (1912-1919); The National University of Peking/National Peking University (1919-1951); Peking University (1952- )

Beida (Wade-Giles romanization: Peita) - Beijing Daxue for short, has been widely received at home and abroad ever since the 1910s when Jingshi Daxuetang was changed to Beijing Daxuexiao, and later, Guoli Beijing Daxue. "Peita" was officially recognized in 1936, when the university administration provided the Peiping Chronicle with an edited version of a Peita introduction:


THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF PEKING: - Of all the educational institutions here the best known is the National University of Peking, popularly called “Pei-ta”...





"Peiping Students Beaten by Police,” The New York Times, Dec. 17, 1935. 



Peiping Chronicle: A Guide to "Peking," 1935




Then President Hu Shi's letter dated Mar. 5, 1947





"The man who would be China's Lenin," The New York Times Magazine, Dec. 19, 1948.




Peking Review, Vol. 1, 1958, p. 61.


 The Cambridge History of China (1983) also put it: Peking University (generally abbreviated as Peita). 

 "Beida" - The Hanyu Pinyin term "Beida" first appeared on English language media in 1966 - a translation of the first "dazibao" that added fuel to the flames of the Maoist mania:


AT present, the people of the whole nation, in a soaring revolutionary spirit which manifests their boundless love for the Party and Chairman Mao and their inveterate hatred for the sinister anti-Party, anti-socialist gang, are making a vigorous and great cultural revolution; they are struggling to thoroughly smash the attacks of the reactionary sinister gang, in defense of the Party’s Central Committee and Chairman Mao. But here in Beida [Peking University] the masses are being kept immobilized, the atmosphere is one of indifference and deadness, whereas the strong revolutionary desire of the vast number of the faculty members and students has been suppressed. What is the matter? What is the reason? Something fishy is going on. Let’s take a look at what has happened very recently! (“What Are Sung Shih, Lu Ping and Peng Pei-yun Up To in the Cultural Revolution?,” Peking Review, Vol. 9, 1966)


It emerged on the university's official English documents in the 1980s, when China just re-opened itself to the outside world. A 1988 book by the university's Office of Chief of General Services, "A glimpse of the Peking University campus," abbreviated the university's name to Beida throughout the bilingual brochure. It emphasized:


We come from all directions with grand hopes, [and] We go to the world for lofty missions.
Beida. ‘Beida’ is the name we all share.



 A 1996 Peking University brochure also noted: "Peking University (Beida)":



A 1998 manual "Centenary celebration activities, Peking University" used "Beida" and "Beida people" - Beida ren (Peking University people):



The term is not confined to domestic use. The Canadian newspaper Globe and Mail is the first overseas media found to have applied "Beida." In its report “Trained in U.S. Physicist heads Peking University” on June 7, 1978, Beida was referred to "as the University is known locally..."

The Times reported on June 9, 1989 titled "Peking emerges to live with fear under the sun; Peking massacre": Peking University... "known universally by its acronym, Beida."

The Encyclopaedia Britannica also put Beida as the university's "byname." 

The term "Peking University (Beida)" is found on English media such as Xinhua in 2009 and the Straits Times in 2011.

The latest evidence: Harvard Professor Ezra Vogel started his speech at the university on April 21, 2013: "It's such a great pleasure to be at Beida… ‘Harvard has a special relationship with Beida.’"

"PKU" promoted by the Internet era

The English acronym "PKU" has only thrived since the 2000s, years after the adoption "www.pku.edu.cn" as the university's domain name in 1994, according to research on the literature relevant.

No "PKU" appeared on the two official English language documents of 1996 and 1998.

"PKU" was just casually used to refer to Peking University on a few occasions from the 1970s to 1994, according to research.

No official document or regulation on the use of "PKU" as abbreviation is found, either from the university administration or China's Ministry of Education.

"PKU" mostly refers to Phenylketonuria, even in official Chinese media that usually gets cross about importing foreign acronyms into Chinese:




 A July 18, 2012 article on People's Daily with "PKU" in the headline




Google Search - "PKU"




Google Search - "Beida"


 To address the Number 10 Downing Street press handlers' problem, the University of Tokyo offered an example:


The University of Tokyo is commonly known as “Todai” in Japan, an abbreviation of the Japanese characters that make up the Japanese name of the University. The full Japanese name of the University is the four characters that spell out Tokyo Daigaku. Taking the first character of Tokyo (our home city) and the first character of Daigaku (which means university), gives Todai. The abbreviation UT is no longer used for several reasons. First, to avoid confusion with other excellent overseas universities that use that abbreviation. Second, to create a single brand image and identity across the University, both visually and among all of our members, irrespective of language. Third, and perhaps most importantly, because even in this global age Todai is a Japanese university, and we are proud of our heritage and unique character.


Da - daxue for short (as Daigaku in the Japanese example), means university. "Beida University" makes a redundancy.

But Beida has been the right word - at least for decades; a word that enchants our British brethren; and the word is with Beida.  


Li Liang: "English Abbreviation of Peking University's Name: Origin and Evolution," 2013.

Edited by: Jaques