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Traditional Cultural Connotations in Place Names
China civilization enjoys a long-standing history during which rich and splendid chapters have been written. History has dual dimensions: temporal and spatial. Frankly speaking, history is an event created by people in given space. Time is forever flowing, just as Confucius said, “how it flows on, never ceasing, day and night”! Yet space is relatively immobile, as a Chinese poet in the Tang Dynasty wrote, “generations have come and passed away; from year to year the moons look alike, old and new.” (Zhang Ruoxu, A Moonlit Night over the Spring River) As a Chinese proverb goes, read more and travel more. What is read in the book is the temporal map of history, while what is seen on the road is the spatial geography of history. And it is from place names that the spatial geography is first mirrored.
When I was pursuing my studies as a young man, I got opportunities to visit provinces like Henan, Shaanxi, Shanxi and Gansu. Every time I came across historical place names commonly found in Shi Ji or Zi Zhi Tong Jian appearing on the boundary markers set by the roads I was travelling along, all sorts of feelings would well up inside me, among which a special one would always rise of itself that I seemed to have travelled through time and space and returned to ancient times. In this respect, China’s time-honored history and culture are not that far away from me; instead, they are just around the corner.
The place name is the primary reminder of hometown. During the period of Yongjia Migration in the last years of the Western Jin Dynasty, a good number of northern officials, scholars and the populace, forced by the war, left their homes and migrated to the far south, not knowing when they could return home. As a result, many prefectures and counties were set up there named after those in the northern homeland. It is common sentiment of mankind to preserve hometown memories by means of place names. In the era of colonial expansion after the Age of Sail, Europeans gave the old names of their homeland places to the new places of residence after they arrived in the Americas and Australia, which is quite common and can be seen everywhere in the United States, Canada, and Australia.
In this connection, can contemporary Chinese place names preserve the historical memory of our ancestry well and pass down the profound historical and cultural heritage? It is a question worth our reflection.