China by graphs

I’ve been having fun with Google Labs’ latest curio, the rather oddly named Ngram Viewer, after having been introduced to it via China Hearsay.

The Ngram Viewer is a visualisation tool that acts like a literary time machine by letting you trace the usage of a word in books over the past five centuries. It’s pretty simply to use. You enter a word or phrase (up to five words), the tool displays a graph charting how frequently your term has appeared in books stored in the Google’s digital library over a certain period of time.

I ran ‘Orwellian’ throught the database. You can see that Orwellian started being used around 1948, just after publication of Orwell’s 1984. Use of the word rose steadily over the years, leveling off in the 70s and then rising sharply to a peak actually during 1984 and remaining more or less there for the next two decades.

You can enter multiple terms to compare their popularity. For example, China Hearsay input ‘Peking’ and ‘Beijing’.

Peking is the old English name for Beijing, which was thought to have originated with French missionaries and traders in the 16th century. There’s a general question mark hanging over where exactly the name ‘Peking’ came from as it’s pretty different to ‘Beijing’. Seeing as Cantonese was likely to be the first Chinese dialect that the traders came across, as most trade and contact with China occured in the south of the country, it’s thought that ‘Peking’ is the result of foreigners trying to prounounce the Cantonese for Beijing, Bak-ging, and failing. At some point in history, the name Peking became dated and was replaced by Beijing by English speakers. Here is what China Hearsay had to say about the graph:

Note the two most interesting data points during this period. The first is around 1949. You can see that the blue line (“Peking”) takes off at that point as English-language sources started talking a whole lot about what was going on in China after the PRC was founded.

The second comes around the mid-1970s when I believe the Chinese government itself started pushing use of “Beijing” by foreigners/English speakers. You can see how the red line (“Beijing”) takes off at that point.

Finally, it was sometime in the mid-1980s when use of “Beijing” in English surpassed that of “Peking” in the Google corpus of books. It would be interesting to know whether usage in the mainstream media followed the same general pattern or switched over to “Beijing” earlier/later.

Interesting stuff. It was also during the mid-80s that China really started to enforce its official name on all flights, sea routes and official documents written in English. Whether English speakers should use Peking or Beijing when talking about the Chinese capital is still debated today .

I spent most of the day playing around with the gadget and throwing about more China related words. The graph produced for variations of Chairman Mao’s name is fairly interesting and probably follows a similar explanation to the Peking/Beijing graph above. However, I was surprised to see Mao Zedong surpass Chairman Mao in usage and to see interest in Mao in general peak again in the mid-90s.

I wish I had more insight regarding why the Chairman Mao line looks like a cat. The word for cat is also mao猫, but pronounced in the first tone, whereas mao毛 is pronounced in the second tone. The connection between Chairman Mao and cats has been noted before, but is still rather mysterious…


Pandas was another obvious choice. I just thought, ‘Oh what the hey, I have two consecutive panda posts, why not do another one and make it a panda hat trick, then stop talking about pandas?’

The graph does reflect the representation of pandas in the collective consciousness of the west. Just 150 years ago westerners had never seen or heard of a panda. That all changed around the 1860s when a Armand David, a French priest and part time zoologist, was first shown a cute, but dead panda in China. He returned home with the fur of this “most excellent black-and-white bear” and this sparked interest in the panda in the west. In the 1930s there was a bout of pandamania after a panda named Su Lin was captured and taken to Chicago’s Brooklin zoo.

Su Lin with his captor, Ruth Harkness

In the 50s and 60s pandamania picked up again as the panda emerged as a national treasure in China and political image in China. It became the face the WWF in 1961 and therefore a symbol for conservation worldwide.

In the 70s the panda line starts to climb again. This was a time when panda diplomacy was at it’s highest – China loaned many panda’s to zoos in western countries, marking  the PRC’s first cultural exchanged with the west. President Nixon was gifted with two pandas in 1972 and this prompted the UK Prime Minister, Edward Heath, to request a pair for London zoo in 1974.

From there on, the line shows a massive increase in panda popularity, possibly due to China playing an increasingly important role on the world stage and still using the panda as a mascot, as well an a huge increase in panda conservation and breeding in China and the ongoing collaboration between the Chinese government and the WWF.

So there we are, Chinese pop history visualised in abstract graph form – things always seem more important in graph form don’t they? Sure, the Ngram Viewer is not hugely scientific and unlikely to be entirely accurate as Google’s corpus only contains 4% of all the books ever written, but it’s fun if you’re a nerd, a bookworm or a history buff.


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