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The Chinese is justly termed a poetical language. The titles of emperors, the names of men, the signs of shops, all have some felicitous meaning. It is therefore somewhat of a disappointment to discover that the names of Chinese villages, unlike those of cities, are not as a rule either poetical or significant. The drafts upon the language by the incessant multiplication of hamlets are too great to be successfully met. Nearly all Chinese surnames serve as the designation of villages, as in other lands the names of families are attached to the settlements which they make. Sometimes two or more surnames are linked together to denote the village, as Chang-Wang Chuang, the village of the Chang and the Wang families. It often happens that in the changes, wrought by time, of the families for whom the place was named not a single representative remains. In such cases the name may be retained or it may be altered, though all recollection of the circumstances of the change may be lost.

The most conspicuous object in a Chinese village is generally a temple, and this building often gives its name to the hamlet. Thus the wall surrounding a temple is covered with red plaster, and the village is dubbed Red Temple. In a few years the plaster falls off, but the name sticks. Temples are frequently associated with the families which were prominent in their construction, and the name of the village is very likely to be derived from this source, as Wang Chia Miao, the Temple of the Wang Family; the Hua Chia SsA-, the monastery of the Hua Family. If there happen to be two temples of a similar appearance, the village may get the title of Double Temple, and in general any peculiarity in edifices of this sort is likely to be stereotyped in the village name.

The habit of using the names of families and temples to indicate the villages is a fertile source of confusion through the indefinite multiplication of the same name. There is no postal system in China compelling each post office to have a designation which shall not be confounded with others in the same province. Hence the more common names are so exceedingly common that they lose all value as distinctive designations. “Chang, Wang, Li, and Chao,” are the four surnames which the Chinese regard as the most prevalent, the first two of them far out-distancing all their competitors. The number of places in a given district bearing the same, or similar names, is past all ascertaining; as, say eight or ten Wang Family villages, the Larger Wang Village, the Smaller Wang Village, the Front Wang Village, the Rear Wang Village, the Wang Village Under-the-bank, and so forth. Even with this complexity, distinction would be a much easier matter if the same name were always used, but anything which has a Wang about it is like to be called simply Wang Village, and only on inquiry is it to be learned which of all these Wangs is the one intended.

A similar ambiguity is introduced along the line of imperial highways, where the hamlets at which food is sold, and where accommodations are offered to travellers, are called “shops,” taking their distinctive title from the distance to the district city, as Five Mile Shop, Ten Mile, Fifteen, Twenty, Thirty, and Forty Mile Shop. Each district city may have “shops” of this kind on each side of it, and while the one twenty miles (or li) north is Twenty Li Shop, so is the one twenty li south, to the great confusion of the traveller, who after all is not sure where he is. In addition to this ambiguity, the Thirty Li Shop of one city is liable to be confounded with the Thirty Li Shop of the next city. It is a common circumstance to find an insignificant hamlet with a name comprising four or five characters, the local pronunciation of which is generally difficult to catch, as the words are spoken as one prolonged, many-syllabled sound. This leads to abbreviations, the same long title having perhaps two or three different modes of utterance, to the bewilderment of strangers, and to the intense amusement of the rustic born on the spot, who cannot conceive what there can be so hard to understand about a name which is to him as familiar as his own.

Another source of confusion in the nomenclature of Chinese villages, is the almost universal habit of varying one or more characters of a name without any apparent reason. The alteration has no connection with euphony, ease of pronunciation, or with any known cause whatever, but seems to be due to an irresistible instinct for variety, and to an antipathy to a too simple uniformity. Thus a village the proper title of which is the Ancient Monastery of the Li Family, (Li Ku SsA-) is generally called Li Kuang SsA-; a village known as that of Benevolence and Virtue (Jen Te Chuang), is ordinarily styled Jen Wang Chuang. Analogous to this habit, is that of affixing two entirely distinct names to the same little hamlet, neither name suggesting the other, and the duplication merely serving to confound confusion. Thus a village which has a name derived from a temple, like HsA1/4an Ti Miao (the temple to HsA1/4an Ti) is also known as Chang Chuang (the village of the Chang Family), but as there are many other villages of Chang families near by this, one will be known by way of distinction, as the “Chang Family village which has a temple to HsA1/4an Ti”! Many persons have occasion to write the names of villages, who have but the scantiest knowledge of Chinese characters, and they are as likely to indite a false character having the same sound as a right one nay, far more so and thus it happens that there is a perpetual uncertainty, never set at rest in any manner whatsoever, as to what the real name of a place ought to be, for to all Chinese one name is as good as another, and in such matters, as in many others, there appears to be no intuition of right and wrong.

Chinese villages are only individual Chinese amplified, and, like individuals, they are liable to be nicknamed; and, as often happens with human beings, the nickname frequently supplants the original, of which no trace may remain in memory. This helps to account for the singular appellations of many villages. A market-town on the highway, the wells of which afford only brackish water, was called “Bitter Water Shop,” but as this name was not pleasing to the ear, it was changed on the tax lists to “Sweet Water Shop.” If any one inquires how it is that the same fountain can send forth at the same time waters both bitter and sweet, he is answered with conclusive simplicity, “Sweet Water Shop is the same as Bitter Water Shop!” A village situated on the edge of a river was named after the two leading families, but when the river rose to a great height this name sunk out of sight, and there emerged the title, “Look at the Water;” but even this alteration not being sufficient to satisfy the thirst for variety, the name is written and pronounced as if it meant, “Look at the Grave!” A hamlet named for the Liu Family had in it a bully who appeared in a lawsuit with a black eye, and hence was called the Village of Liu with the Black Eye. In another instance a town had the name of Dropped Tooth, merely because the local constable lost a central incisor (Lao Ya Chen); but in course of time this fact was forgotten, and the name altered into “Market-town of the Crows,” (Lao Kua Chen) which it still retains.

A village in which most of the families joined the Roman Catholics and pulled down all their temples, gained from this circumstance the soubriquet of “No Gods Village” (Wu Shen Chuang). The following specimens of singular village names are all taken from an area but a few miles square, and could doubtless be paralleled in almost any other region. “The Imperial Horse Yard” (YA1/4 Ma YA1/4an). This title is said to have been inherited from the times of the founder of the Sung Dynasty. It is generally corrupted into “Sesame Garden,” (Chih Ma YA1/4an). “End of the Cave,” a village situated on a great plain, with vague traditions of an underground passage. “Seeing the Horse”; “Horse Words Village,” from a tradition of a speaking animal; “Sun Family Bull Village”; “Female Dog Village”; “Wang Family Great Melon Village”; “Separating from the King Village”; “Basket Village of the Liu Village”; “Tiger-catching Village,” and “Tiger-striking Fair”; “Duck’s Nest of the Chou Family”; “Horse Without a Hoof”; “Village of Chang of the Iron Mouth”; “Ts’ui Family Wild Pheasant Village”; “Wang Family Dog’s Tooth”; “Village of the Benevolent and Loving Magistrate”; “Village of the Makers of Fine-tooth Combs,” (Pi-tzA chiang Chuang), which is now corrupted into “The Village Where They Wear Pug-noses”!