Friday, March 26, 2010

Strange and wonderful place names

These days, Taoyuan (桃園) is unrepentantly industrial city of almost 400,000 with a name that strikes 21st-century visitors as oddly bucolic: táo (peach) yuán (garden). Before it became Peach Garden, it bore a much more vivid toponym. The pioneers who settled hereabouts in the late 1700s dubbed it Humaozhuang (虎茅庄) meaning ‘the terrace covered by plants with leaves as sharp as tigers’ teeth’.

Kaohsiung (高雄) was long known to the world as Takau. This name, often spelled Takao and sometimes Dagou, stuck for more than three centuries, until the Japanese colonial authorities decided the written form – two Chinese characters with the literal meaning 'hit the dog' (打狗) – was undignified. They replaced it with different characters (the current 高雄) meaning 'lofty hero', pronounced Takao in Japanese and Gāoxióng in Mandarin.

For the same reason, they renamed what's now Minxiong (民雄), a town just north of Chiayi. Originally dubbed Damao (打貓, ‘hit the cat’), the colonial regime selected the current set of characters, which mean ‘citizen’s hero’. Endearing place names can still be found throughout the countryside. One neighbourhood on the outskirts of Tainan is still marked on maps as Gourou (狗肉, ‘dog meat’ – perhaps its first resident was a butcher selling canine steaks). In tea-growing country not far from Alishan, there's a Niushihu (牛屎湖,‘cow-dung lake’) and near Jiaxian in rural Kaohsiung, one small valley is known as Goushikeng (狗屎坑, ‘dog-faeces hole’). Kaohsiung has another of my favourite toponyms: Agongdian (阿公店), literally 'grandpa's shop'.

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