Following many years of presenting Tibet on its maps with non-Chinese variants of Tibetan place names, by 1980 people had noticed that National Geographic (NG) had approved the use of Chinese-sounding names, with romanized renderings of Tibetan names cleared from its maps, replaced by Sinocized versions. An act which supported the bogus claim that Tibet was part of Chinese territory. Given the eminent position of NG within the academic, map-making and geographic community it was not long before other cartographers followed suit in endorsing, through maps and atlases, China’s propaganda assertions concerning Tibet’s territorial status.
Mapping Cold-War Politics
Yet their Map Policy assures the public that its cartography “strives to be apolitical” that being so how does its Map Committee explain its ready compliance and conformity in 1977, to what was a clear political agenda being engineered within the United Nations. One that sought to normalize relations with China, which had that year witnessed the end of Chairman Mao’s ‘revolutionary era’?
National Geographic’s decision to use Chinese versions of traditional Tibetan place names seems to have been taken following a Resolution by the United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in August of that same year. Which “recognized the Scheme for a Chinese Phonetic Alphabet (Pinyin) as China’s official Roman alphabet scheme and recommended the alphabet as the international system for the romanization of Chinese sic] geographical names.” (United Nations resolution III/8 1977) See here for more info http://www.eki.ee/wgrs/rom1_bo.htm
The world at that time, and particularly the United States, then still engaged in a cold-war wrestle with the Soviet Union was actively interested in reaching out to China; so long in ideological isolation during Mao’s insane revolutionary period, normalization of relations with Beijing was a prime issue within the US State Department. So much so that the very month the United Nations decided to agree to wipe Tibetan place names from the world map (an act which surely had political connections to the diplomatic and strategic objectives of the United States regarding China) then Secretary of State Cyrus Vance was dispatched to Beijing to further nurture relations with the Chinese regime.
It is no coincidence that the UN decided to adopt Pin Yin (romanized version of mandarin Chinese) as “the international system for the romanization of Chinese geographical names,”. Nor was it an apolitical action, but a calculated political act that sought to appease China. Within that context, and against the political currents that circulated at the time the National Geographic’s claim that is simply acting in accord with a UN Resolution could be seen by some as a self-serving duplicity. Whatever the case, its decision to wipe away romanized Tibetan place-names and use Chinese variants , cannot be reasonably argued to be an action absent of politics, and certainly invites questions about the stated apolitical objectives of its Map Policy.
Furthermore, its decision and subsequent re-drafting of maps and atlases, must we imagine have occurred with the encouragement, cooperation and collaboration of China’s regime, which itself surely constitutes a political action on the part of National Geographic? Some may argue that the respected journal was simply reflecting a political reality, well if that was so why, given Tibet was illegally annexed in 1950 and subsequently came under the military and political tyranny of China, did National Geographic continue for nearly thirty years to accurately represent authentic Tibetan place names on its maps?
The political facts were that Tibet had been occupied for decades, yet to its credit NG had rightly followed a policy which featured Tibetan place names, those circumstances had not changed. Was it purely coincidental that around 1980 China was beginning to open its doors to greater academic and economic contact with the West? Did the prospect of engagement with China, and the no doubt alluring academic, career and financial benefits, prove an irresistible determinant? Whatever the facts, in deciding to produce maps that show Tibet and its settlements with Chinese-sounding names surely benefits China’s propaganda aims, to persuade the world of the supposed legitimacy of its claims over Tibet.
We would urge National Geographic to urgently reassess its current presentation of place-names in Tibet and revert to a more neutral, politically balanced romanized Tibetan version, rather than the politically motivated Chinese versions, which of course are the fabrication of China’s regime. As NG places such importance on balance and objectivity and strives to avoid political bias, surely romanized Tibetan place names are less controversial and also more accurate in terms of the cultural, ethnological and historic reality of towns and villages in Tibet.
It is surely time to put Tibet back on the world map, minus China’s poisonous distortions, if you agree please help us by emailing National Geographic and asking them to restore Tibet and authentic Tibetan place names on its maps and atlases. They may be contacted here: email@example.com
NB: Map extracts here are for educational purposes to supplement written content.