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As Beijing welcomed 2022, residents in the Chinese capital noticed a subtle shift taking place in the city’s subway: on signs, the English word “station” has been replaced with “Zhan,” the pinyin, or romanized version, of the Chinese character.
And in some cases, English station names such as Olympic Park and Terminal 2 of the Beijing airport have become “Aolinpike Gongyuan” and “2 Hao Hangzhanlou” – though the English translations are still displayed in brackets underneath.
The changes appear to be a work in progress that first started last month, and come just weeks ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
Though there’s no suggestion the revamp is in any way linked to the Winter Games, some have contrasted it with Beijing’s efforts to improve English translations of street signs before welcoming the world for the 2008 Summer Olympics.
And the campaign has already caused a stir online, with many questioning the rationale behind such replacements, since foreign visitors who don’t speak any Chinese are unlikely to understand pinyin.
Beijing Subway said in a statement last week that the changes are part of “the city’s ongoing efforts to unify translations of subway station names in accordance with relevant regulations.”
But that has failed to convince many on Chinese social media.
“English translations are meant for foreigners to read. Why don’t you just have only Chinese then? This kind of translation is redundant,” a comment said on Weibo, China’s answer to Twitter.
Last week, the state-run Guangming Daily also weighed in, questioning the practicality of the move and how much such new translations would actually help the target audience.
“For Chinese people, the vast majority do not need the help of pinyin to read Chinese, and in fact more people may know Chinese characters than pinyin,” it said in a commentary, adding that some elderly and overseas Chinese might not understand pinyin, which was developed in the 1950s and taught in primary schools in mainland China.
“For foreigners, the overwhelming majority probably don’t recognize pinyin…Therefore, this kind of translation may fall into an awkward situation: Chinese people don’t need it, foreigners don’t understand it.”
Alistair Baker-Brian, a British national who lives in Beijing and speaks Chinese, says the changes don’t affect him personally, as he can read most of the station names in Chinese.
“I think in some ways, it could actually be better for non-Chinese speakers, and particularly for people who are maybe not very familiar with China,” said Baker-Brian, an editor at That’s Beijing, an English-language digital media platform serving China’s international community.
“Perhaps when tourists eventually return and when they need to tell the taxi driver where to go, (the drivers) are more likely to understand Beixinqiao Zhan, rather than Beixinqiao station,” he said.
But to others, the move is accentuating fears that China’s ruling Communist Party is increasingly pushing back against English, amid its ongoing ideological war against Western influence.
“They’re starting to get rid of English. The English-learning craze at the time of the 2008 Beijing Olympics Games seems like a lifetime ago,” a user lamented on Douban, a popular site for reviewing movies, books and music.
Widely regarded as China’s “coming out party” on the world stage, the 2008 Olympics incentivized a generation of Beijing residents to learn English as they welcomed tens of thousands of foreign guests.
In the lead-up to the event, the Beijing government launched a campaign to correct wrong English translations on road signs and names of public venues. The effort was even branded as a “mass movement” to raise the public’s “Olympic awareness” and improve “the city’s English level and civilization level,” state broadcaster CCTV reported at the time.
But things took a different turn under Xi Jinping, who since coming to power in 2013 has eagerly promoted “cultural self-confidence” and traditional Chinese culture. At the same time, Western books, movies, and other forms of perceived influence are viewed with increasing suspicion, and some government policies have prompted fears that English is next in the crosshairs.
In August, education authorities in Shanghai, widely considered to be China’s most international city, banned local primary schools from holding final exams about the English language. While the policy came amid broader government efforts to ease academic pressure on Chinese children, the move sent shock waves among the country’s middle-class parents, who worried their cities would soon follow suit.
In March, a government adviser suggested English should be downgraded in importance as a subject in schools – making it less important than Chinese and maths and no longer compulsory in college entrance exams.
And in 2020, the Education Ministry announced a ban on foreign textbooks in all primary and junior high schools – a move widely regarded as an attempt to tighten ideological control of students across the country.
It is perhaps unsurprising that all these concerns have sprung to mind for some when they learn of the changes to English names at subway stations across Beijing.
For now, these new signs are unlikely to make any difference for the Winter Games, which will be held within a tightly sealed Covid-safe “bubble” – meaning all participants and attendees will be prohibited from freely entering the city anyway.
But when foreign visitors, including tourists, return to Beijing at some point in the future, after China finally re-opens its borders, they might face a subway system that is a little more confusing to navigate.
“As a country that’s open to the outside world, it’s our duty to provide convenience (to foreign visitors),” said the commentary in the Guangming Daily. “We’re living in an era of irreversible globalization, and people-to-people exchanges have become a must. How to make facilities and signs more helpful, how to better unify standards, all require our consideration.”