“The street that Tamina was born on was called Schwerinova Street. That was during the war, when Prague was occupied by the Germans. Her father was born on Cernokostelecka Avenue. That was under Austria-Hungary. When her mother married her father and moved in there, it was Marshal Foch Avenue. That was after the 1914-1918 war. Tamina spent her childhood on Stalin Avenue, and it was on Vinohrady Avenue that her husband picked her up to take her to her new home. And yet it was always the same street, they just keep changing its name.”
That is how Czech novelist Milan Kundera describes the politics of street names in The Book of Laughter and Forgetting. And in China, a sweeping campaign is underway to revise the names of roads, parks and residences that aren’t in sync with Communist Party thinking.
In the historic city of Xi’an, 151 housing estates have been told that their names must be rectified. That includes ‘Seine Mansion’, ‘Poly Lafite Mansion’ and ‘Crape Court European Family’, which are deemed too foreign. ‘Imperial Garden’ is also on the chopping block because of its feudal allusions.
In Sanming, a scenic city in Fujian, many of the local mountains are considered oddly named too. The strangeness stems largely from their mentioning of excretion, animal parts and spirits. ‘Cow Manure Fossa’ and ‘Ghost Head Col’ are two examples.
In Zhejiang many of these so-called ‘non-normative’ titles have already been changed. ‘Manhattan Plaza’ was revised to ‘Little Sun Valley’ and ‘Postal Telecommunications Road East’ is now ‘Ink Pool Road’ (apparently after a poem from the Song Dynasty celebrating the ancient calligrapher Wang Xizhi).
The initiative can be traced back to a nationwide survey of location names in 2014. In March 2016 the State Council went on to formalise its criteria for how the names should be revamped. Anything that comes across as ‘exaggerating’, ‘foreign’, ‘bizarre’ or ‘repetitive’ is up for revision.
This is actually the fifth time that the government has pushed for a renaming exercise since the People’s Republic was established in 1949, according to Zhejiang Radio and TV. The current wave is meant to combat a ‘tendency to idolise the West’ and cultivate more confidence in local culture.
The campaign has failed to resonate with the general public, however. “Some of these mountains have had their names for a few centuries, what’s the point of revising them?” asked one netizen in Fujian. “Even if the names sound awkward, you have to consult the locals before making changes,” another added.
Another entity that is annoyed by the new directive is the Vienna Hotel in Hainan, which has also been instructed by the local authorities to change its name.
The property, which belongs to a Shenzhen-based hospitality chain, is furious, claiming that the hotel’s name is a registered trademark and should be valid until 2020 at the very least.
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