Understanding Chinese Place Names
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Most Chinese place names are actually quite easy to understand - and thus easier to learn - once you have learned the meaning of just a few of the syllables contained within them. That is because many of China's most famous place names are actually geographic descriptions, meaning things like "Northern Capital" (Beijing) or "South of the Lakes" (Hunan).

Source: Columbia University East Asian Curriculum Project (used with permission)
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Some Basic Meanings Useful to Understanding Many Place Names
Compass Directions:
Dong = east
Xi = west
Bei = north
Nan = south
Zhong = middle/central
Physical Features:
Hai = lake
He = river (implies broad/old)
Hu = lake
Jiang = river (implies canyons/young)
Shan = mountain
Other Useful Terms:
An = peace
Ning = peace
Yun = clouds
Major Chinese Place Names & Their Meanings
Anhui Province = "Peaceful Emblem", derived from the name of two ancient provinces, Anching and Huizhou.

Beijing = "Northern Capital"

Chongqing Municipality = Modern meaning "Double Celebration" (original meaning of different, similar sounding characters was "Central Capital")

Fujian Province = "Happy Establishment"

Gansu Province = "Pleasant Respectful"

Guangzhou = "'Guang'/Wide City" - formerly known as Canton. ("zhou" used often to denote an important town)

Guangxi Province = "Wide West" The current province name Guangxi is a contraction of the ancient name Guangnan Xilu, meaning "Wide South, West Route", referring to present Guangxi's role as the western route from early China's core lands to the lands to the south.

Guangdong Province = "Wide East" The current province name Guangdong is a contraction of the ancient name Guangdong Xilu, meaning "Wide South, East Route", referring to present Guangdong's role as the eastern route from early China's core lands to the lands to the south.

Guizhou Province = "Noble Prefecture"

Hainan Province = Sea South

Hebei Province = River North

Henan Province = River South

Heilongjiang Autonomous Region = "Black Dragon River"

Hubei Province = Lake North

Hunan Province = Lake South

Jiangxi Province = "River West"

Jiangsu Province = "River Awakening"

Jilin Province = "Lucky Forest"

Liaoning Province = "Distant Peace"

Nanjing = "Southern Capital"

Ningxia Autonomous Region = "Peaceful Summer"

Qinghai = "Blue Sea"

Shaanxi Province = "Thieves Mountain West". Actually, the name of Shaanxi should be spelled exactly the same as that of the neighboring province of Shanxi ("Mountain West"), but to make the difference clear in roman writing the extra "a" is added to indicate a tonal difference that would otherwise require a special accent to be printed above the single "a."

Shandong  Province = "River East"

Shanghai Municipality = "Up (on the) Sea"

Shanxi Province = "Mountain West"

Sichuan Province = "Four Rivers"

Taiwan Island = Literally "Platform Gulf", but by tradition the name came fro a Chinese transliteration of the name which one of the native tribes applied to foreigners: Taian

Tianjin Municipality: "Heaven's Ferry Landing", said to refer either to a myth of an emperor fording a river there or its role as the landing place for foreign visitors coming to visit the emperor (Son of Heaven) at nearby Beijing

Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region  = "New Frontier"

Yunnan Province = "Cloud South"

Zhejiang Province = "Winding River"

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Send all additions, suggestions and corrections to Professor Sara W. Tucker,