the clash of romanisations

Last month the Ministry of Civil Affairs (民政部) published a list of six ‘standardised’ place names in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh, a large part of which the PRC claims as part of South Tibet (藏南). This generated the predictable Indian protests, media brouhaha and mandatory Globule sovereignty-reaffirming blather. Analysis of what’s being called a “renaming” of Arunachal “districts” sees it as retaliation for the Dalai Lama’s recent visit to the region. All these hit-back-at-the-DL-to-“re”affirm-sovereignty readings are surely plausible, but I don’t think it’s very clear in which sense these ministerial coinages are ‘renaming’ or ‘standardising’ anything.

Here are the ministry’s new ‘standard’ toponyms, in Chinese, Tibetan and romanisation (my additions in square brackets):

乌间岭 [pinyin Wujian ling]
ཨོ་རྒྱན་གླིང། [Wylie o rgyan gling]

米拉日 [Mila ri]
མི་ལ་རི། [mi la ri]
Mila Ri

曲登嘎布日 [Qudeng gabu ri]
མཆོད་རྟེན་དཀར་པོ་རི། [mchod rten dkar po ri]
Qoidêngarbo Ri

梅楚卡 [Meichuka]
སྨན་ཆུ་ཁ། [sman chu kha]

白明拉山口 [Baimingla shankou]
པུས་མོ་ལ། [pus mo la]
Bümo La

纳姆卡姆 [Namukamu]
གནམ་ཁ་ཕུབ་རི། [gnam kha phub ri]
Namkapub Ri

The Chinese names are simply transcriptions of the Tibetan names (except for one translated element: ལ la 山口 shānkǒu ‘pass’), largely using characters typically chosen for similar Tibetan transcriptions. The Chinese toponyms aren’t a ‘renaming’ in any way, but simply a pretty standard way of standardising the Tibetan names. The issue then becomes whether the Tibetan names were coined by the Relevant Departments, thus ‘renaming’ Arunachal locations.

The ministry’s announcement provides geographical coordinates for the six ‘standardised’ locations, down to arc seconds (~30m). Anyone with access to Google Maps can check them, and that’s what Manoj Joshi did for The Wire. Two of the places are easily recognisable: the town of Me(n)chuka (Tibetan Sman chu ka, romanised by the ministry as Mainquka), and the famous O rgyan gling temple, locally spelt Urgelling, said to be the birthplace of the sixth Dalai Lama, and famous for its Kanjur edition, now kept at the nearby Tawang monastery. The original temple was destroyed centuries ago and exists today as a much smaller building. Crucially, the Urgelling’s coordinates in the ministerial announcement are off by some 300m, meaning either the Ministry or Google have got their data wrong. Joshi checked the other four locations and found nothing of significance at the coordinates given, but that could simply be the result of more ministerial (or googlal) errors: e.g., places called ‘mountain’ (ri) or ‘pass’ (la) aren’t actually peaks or mountain passes, but nondescript points on mountain slopes.

So at least two of the Tibetan toponyms aren’t new at all (the name of the Urgelling temple, in particular, is obviously centuries older than the PRC and its various ministries), and the other four look like they could also be existing Tibetan names of geographic features some distance away from where the ministry believes they are. No evidence of ‘renaming’ in the Tibetan either.

As for the romanised names, they are simply transcriptions of the Tibetan forms in Tibetan pinyin (Zangwen pinyin 藏文拼音), the romanisation system officially used by the PRC. Like many other transcription systems, ZYPY attempts to give (a forgetful image of) a Lhasa pronunciation of Tibetan words, while the Wylie system simply transliterates the Tibetan script, ignoring its pronunciation in modern variants of Tibetan. ZYPY is based on the conventions of Chinese pinyin, and that makes convenient for Chinese learners of Tibetan, but quite unwieldy for everyone else. For example, the syllable མཆོད (Wylie mchod) in one of the toponyms above, pronounced [tɕʰø] (high tone) in Lhasa, comes out as qoi in ZYPY, quite unintuitive for those unfamiliar with Chinese pinyin. More internationally-minded transriptions, such as the Tournadre system, render the same syllable as chö.

The ministry’s Roman-alphabet forms add no information to the Tibetan: they don’t ‘rename’ or ‘standardise’ anything, but simply show the result of applying a well-known romanisation system to the Tibetan names. Since the romanised forms are all the non-Chinese-or-Tibetan-reading public will see in the announcement, the ‘renaming’ controversy boils down to a clash of romanisations, which seems a very inexpensive way of generating controversies.

A pinyin-style romanisation also exists for Mongolian, also featuring q and x with values close to those used in Chinese pinyin, but as far as I know it hasn’t been weaponised yet.