Friday, October 19, 2012

No name for a hero!

I happened to catch a TV documentary the other week about Koxinga, a celebrated Chinese pirate/warlord of the mid-17th century who is most notable for initiating the Chinese 'ownership' of Taiwan by wresting it from the control of a small Dutch colony in 1661.

It's one of those names that I've never heard spoken before, but I'd always assumed that its spelling was derived via pinyin or some similar modern Romanization system. But I really have no idea. It could be a much older spelling. I wouldn't even know what variety of Chinese it is supposed to be (his paternal family were supposedly from the southern coastal province of Fujian; but he himself was born on the island of Kyushu at the southern end of Japan, and had a Japanese mother). And after all, the chap was born nearly 400 years ago; it's impossible to know exactly how various versions of the Chinese languages of the time were pronounced.

Even so, I would have thought that the favoured pronunciation today would follow the pinyin rules, under which x is a sort of sy- sound (not as in psychology, but as in this year), and the o would be a long -or: Korsyinga.

This TV programme's favoured pronunciation, Cock-Singer, just didn't sound right, somehow; it lacked a certain gravitas or dignitas.

[I learn that the name is an honorific title, signifying something like 'Father of the Nation'. In modern Mandarin Chinese, it's 國姓爺, guo xing ye, where the xing part is most definitely a sying, NOT a -ksing! Whether Fujianese or Cantonese (as spoken 400 years ago) would support the more unfortunate innuendo-laden pronunciation, I cannot say.]


The Weeble said...

"Koxinga" is a folk romanization not based on any standardized romanization system. The characters 国姓爷 would be "Guoxingye" in Pinyin, but are read as (I think) "Kokusen'ya" in Japanese; the first part of his name (国, "Guo" in Mandarin) was an entering-tone word in Middle Chinese and would have had a "-k" stop consonant at the end, hence the Japanese reading of "Koku," the modern Cantonese reading of "Gwok," etc. I suspect "Koxinga" probably came to us by way of Dutch; "Cocksinja" was another spelling at the time, and if you pronounce the "j" as an English "y," you get something that sounds reasonably close to either a historical southern Chinese or a modern Japanese reading of 国姓爷.

Of course, most Chinese people know him by the name Zheng Chenggong (郑成功).

Froog said...

I thought you'd step forward on this one, Weebs.

Yet for all the antiquarian peregrinations, you fail to commit o the issue of whether you would call him 'Cock-Singer'.

The Weeble said...

Not to his face, no.

Anna said...

Not sure how accurate to the Chinese original it is, but 'Koxinga' pronounced in Dutch (Kok-sing-ga, g as a hard g) actually sounds surprisingly much like a somewhat unusual but still possible Dutch surname. I suspect the Dutch people in Tainan heard the name and Dutchified it, and that version made it back to Europe.

Froog said...

Thanks for that, Anna.

You know we English always like to blame the Dutch for everything.

However, this doesn't seem like a very compelling reason to use this as the standard pronunciation in modern English. We ought to strive to recreate what the name sounded like to the Chinese in the 1600s; and if that knowledge is lost to us, or the answer it gives is unusably risible (as, I'm afraid, 'Cock-Singer' is!), then we should pronounce it as they do in modern Chinese.