The Gate of Heavenly Pacification

By P K Cassel

Two weeks ago, the nineteenth anniversary of the suppression of the student movement of 1989 passed. Although the anniversary passed more quietly than usual, Tian’anmen 天安門 keeps its special place in our minds and few places in China can compete with the stature of the gate and the square that bears its name.

For five hundred years, the gate was an important site for official functions during the Ming and Qing dynasties, and following the fall of the empire, the gate has grown in prominence. When the republic was inaugurated in 1912, the first president Yuan Shikai used the gate as a venue for the kind of public pageantry that was expected of a modern nation state. On May 4, 1919, the students of Peking University chose the gate as the stage of a forceful protest against the Treaty of Versailles, and they were followed by a number of demonstrations well into the 1940s. It was here that Mao Zedong proclaimed the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949 (although, as Michael Schoenhals has pointed out in a lengthy footnote to a working paper on Chinese language and politics the notion that the Chairman said there and then that China had “stood up” is a much recycled myth). Ten years later, the expansion of Tian’anmen Square took place, which created the massive monument-filled plaza we know today. The gate also adorns the Chinese national coat of arms, and every Chinese schoolchild can recite the patriotic verse, Wo ai Beijing, Tian’anmen (“I love Beijing, Tian’anmen”).

Now close your eyes and tell me what English expression comes to your mind when you hear the name Tian’anmen. Although the gate has many connotations, it is very likely that you would think the “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” which is the standard translation of the name in English. In most Western languages, Tian’anmen is rendered in different versions of “Gate of Heavenly Peace,” all of which propagate different shades of the idea of peace and serenity. In French, it is called La porte de la Paix celeste, in German Tor des himmlischen Frieden and in my native Swedish tongue, which has two closely related words for “peace,” we usually call it Himmelska fridens port or Himmelsfridens port, which are close to “Gate of Heavenly Tranquility.” When I hear the Swedish expression, I often think of Goran Malmqvist’s translation of Wen Yiduo’s poem, “Tiananmen,” which narrates an atrocity perpetrated by the Guomindang near the gate.

It is not clear to me exactly when Westerners decided that Tian’anmen was a gate of peace and tranquility. In his work The Middle Kingdom of 1849, Samuel Wells Williams translated the name the “Gate of Heavenly Rest” and you sometimes find old English language books using the term “Gate of Heavenly Tranquility.” A quick search on Google Books, shows that the name “Gate of heavenly peace” was used as early as 1874, which indicates that the name many have been coined in the decades after foreign legations were established in the capital, in an area not far from the gate itself.

Given the fact that many violent events have taken place in front of the gate, quite a few writers have succumbed to the temptation of pointing to the supposed dissonance between the pacific name of the gate and the not so peaceful events that have transpired there. Already in 1935, L.C. Arlington and William Lewisohn said the following in their classic study of Beijing:

"Since the establishment of the Republic the square in front of the gate has repeatedly been used for political meetings that have often led to minor riots rather belying the name of “Heavenly Peace.” The radical and democratic speeches made on such occasions would have sounded very strange to the ears of the great Ming and Manchu Emperors of the past!" (p. 31)

Thankfully for us China historians, who cherish complexity and make a living writing about it, things are of course not quite that simple. First of all, the name Tian’anmen is of relatively “recent” origin; when the gate was originally built in the 1420s, the imperial government gave it the name “Chengtianmen” 承天門, which roughly translates as “Gate of Receiving the Mandate of Heaven.” It did not get its present name until after it was rebuilt in 1651, a couple of years after the Manchu conquest of Beijing.

More importantly, we also need to consider the fact that the Qing Empire was a multilingual empire and virtually every official name had a Manchu equivalent, be it the name of a building or the reign name of an emperor. As the Manchu language is a fully inflecting language, the Manchu officials who coined these names had to be explicit about the relationship between the words forming an expression and, as the German sinologist Erich Hauer pointed out in a seminal article from 1930, the “Manchu versions of names often reveal the true meaning of the names given.” (See Erich Hauer, “Why the Sinologue Should Study Manchu,” Journal of the North-China Branch of the Royal Asiatic Society 61 (1930): 156-64)

In our post-modern era, we are perhaps a bit wary of talking about the “true meaning” of anything, but the fact remains that many of the first Manchus who ruled in Beijing were not very proficient in Chinese, and we should take Manchu names as serious expressions of what they were thinking, not just as translations of the real Chinese name. When I started to study Manchu eight years ago, my teacher used the Manchu name of Tian’anmen as a way of showing the importance of the Manchu language to understanding Chinese history.

So, what was the Manchu name of Tian’anmen? Unlike its brief Chinese counterpart, it was rather wordy, just as one might have expected: abkai elhe obure duka (The Manchu script on the left was created using http://www.anaku.cn/).

Now, let’s analyze the name word by word. The first word is the Manchu term for “heaven” in its causative/genitive form, and can be translated as “by heaven” or “of heaven” depending on context. The second and third words form a verbal expression meaning “to make peace” or “to pacify.” And the final word is just the Manchu word for “gate,” nothing more and nothing less. Taken together, the name of the gate should more properly be translated “The Gate of Heaven’s Pacification” or “Gate of Heavenly Peace-Making,” as Hauer put it in his article.

In other words, Tian’anmen is by no means a peaceful name, but a name rather fitting to a fledging empire that anxiously protected its claims to legitimacy and busied itself with suppressing rebellion and dissent wherever they showed up. This should not come as a surprise to anyone familiar with the history of the Qing dynasty – or any subsequent regime for that matter. Now if we take a second look at the Chinese name, the Sinologist in us quickly realizes that the second character in Tian’anmen, an 安, can both be a noun meaning “peace” and a transitive verb meaning, “make peace” or even “suppress.” Indeed, many Chinese language guides to the gate explain that Tian’anmen is an ellipsis of the much longer phrase shou ming yu tian, an bang zhi guo 受命於天, 安邦治國, which roughly translates as “Receiving the mandate of heaven, pacifying the realm and ruling the people.”

Is “Gate of Heavenly Peace” an erroneous name that should be replaced by a better translation such as “Gate of Heavenly Pacification”? Or shall we follow the trend of using native names and just call the gate Tian’anmen, hoping that Sinologists and better-informed tour guides will impart the “truth” about the name to the public? I don’t have a ready answer to that question and I am reluctant to change well-established and catchy names, even if they are basically incorrect. But I think we need to think more about the role of language in Chinese history and the tremendous power that the written word in general and Chinese characters in particular have over our minds.


Anon said...

Thanks for the explanation of the Manchu name. I had always been puzzled by the English name "Gate of Heavenly Peace". Because while "heavenly peace" is a nice phrase, it seems to me that "Tian An" is not a phrase in Chinese at all, it's just two separate words being put in one place.

Anonymous said...

Great to see a Manjuphone in the Sinosphere! As a token linguist in a sea of historians, though, I have to quibble with one terminological and one semantic point: a) {abkai} -- the genitive/instrumental morpheme /i/ isn't causative; here, it's marking the *agent*, I guess you could say. b) {elhe obu-} -- I'm not any more inclined to translate this as "pacifying" than "peace". "Pacification" in English strongly implies (to me, at least) forceful action on a patient, and a recalcitrant patient at that; I'm hard put to come up with Manchu examples of X obu- constructions where you can read that kind of 'muscularly transitive' sense into it. In fact, I'll wager that the *majority* of X obu- examples don't refer to any patient. It seems to me that X obu- is really more like an inchoative or introductory phrasing. (I'm pretty sure there's a verb stem that *does* mean "to pacify someone/something" -- elhexe- ? -- but I'm not sure how well attested its use really is.)

The China Beat said...

This is a response to kk from Pär Cassel:

Thanks for the thoughtful response, kk. It is amazing how quick you get well-informed responses to this blog! According to Kawachi Yoshiro's grammar the agent of /-bu-/ constructions is usually marked with /de, /but you may be right that /i /is an alternative way of marking the agent.

As to the question whether the verb /obumbi/ can refer to a patient, Hu Zengyi's Manchu-Chinese dictionary gives a number of translations of /obumbi/, such as: /shi...chengwei..., bian...wei..., ba...biancheng, shi...zuowei, /and so on. There are also an number of examples, such as /"....uthai ajige sargan jui be tede sargan obumbi sehe,"/ which seems to indicate that /obumbi /actually did take an patient. Perhaps "pacifying" is a bit too muscular translation of /elhe obumbi/, but I still think that Hauer's translation "peace-making" still makes a lot of sense. Would you agree with this?