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What's In A Name?

As Beijing gears up to host this year's Olympic Games, we asked Perry Link, professor of East Asian Studies at Princeton University, to give us his perspective on how China is responding to the challenge. He will be guest-blogging for us over the next few weeks:

Might athletes from Taiwan have boycotted the Olympic Games if Beijing had made a minor shift in their team's name? This nearly happened a few days ago and yes, says Tai Shia-ling, Taiwan's Minister of Sports Affairs, the Taiwan athletes would definitely have stayed away. Beijing backtracked, and a confrontation was averted.

The notion that entities must be called by their right names runs deep in Chinese culture. It affects position, prestige, and power. In 1972, when the Chinese Ping-Pong Delegation was on its historic tour of the U.S., I traveled with the delegation as an interpreter. The group visited a high school in Maryland where a banner welcoming the group used two incorrect Chinese characters in its name. Chen Siqun, political commissar for the delegation, came to me and said, "Your side has two choices: Pull the banner down immediately, or we leave immediately." The banner came down. 

The issue of what to call Taiwanese athletes at the Olympics is laden with implications for the political fight over whether Taiwan is part of China or not. In 1989 the two governments signed an agreement on the matter. When participating in the Olympics or other international sporting events, athletes from Taiwan would go under the label "Chinese Taipei." The Taiwan side won a minor victory with this English transliteration, because in Beijing "Taipei" is spelled Taibei.

But it is a tortured term, however spelled, because Taipei is the name of a city, not all of Taiwan. Athletes from Hualien, Kaohsiung, and elsewhere in Taiwan must feel awkward under the label. It would be like asking a pole-vaulter from Colorado to compete under a banner of "American New York." 

What happened a few days ago was that someone in Beijing tried to change the first two characters of the agreed-upon name from "Zhonghua" to "Zhongguo." The two terms both mean "China," but Zhonghua is clearly a modifier, whereas Zhongguo can be either a modifier or a noun. That subtle ambiguity makes a difference--all the difference between "Chinese Taipei" and "China, Taipei." And that matters because in Chinese, unlike English, addresses begin with larger units and work toward smaller ones. One says "Pennsylvania, Philadelphia, 22 Walnut St.", not "22 Walnut St., Philadelphia PA." Therefore "Zhongguo Taipei" can mean "Taipei [which is a subdivision of] China." In Chinese politics that's pretty far from "Chinese Taipei."

It remains unclear exactly who in Beijing, at what level, and on whose authority, came up with the idea of this tiny time-bomb of a name switch. Whatever the case, it is hard to imagine that it was merely an accident. It calls to mind another maneuver, a few months ago, when Beijing proposed that the Olympic torch pass through Taiwan, but between its stops in Hong Kong and Macao, which are both now under Beijing's sovereignty. This would suggest that Taiwan, too, is part of China. Taiwan said, "No, thanks." 

Stay tuned. If these stunts are any indication, there are probably more nationalistic maneuvers to come.

--Perry Link