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An explanation for why I use "Amoy" as well as
"Xiamen" in our books and websites.
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Why “Amoy”? After a
lecture to 300 students in Zhangzhou
I invited questions, and one youth leaped to his feet and demanded, “Why
do you say Amoy? Why not Xiamen? That’s
the name! Huh, huh, huh?” He glared at me like a Cultural Revolution
era Red Guard about to plant a dunce cap on his teacher.
Many Chinese have asked this, but never so indignantly. I smiled, took
a breath, and said, “Why do Chinese say “Jiù Jinshan?"
instead of San Francisco? Huh huh huh?”
“Chinese can’t pronounce “San Francisco!” the
The word Amoy was coined after the 1st Opium War
(1839-42), when Xiamen was forced opened as a treaty port. A foreigner
asked a Fuzhou customs officer the island’s name and he was told
it was called, in the local dialect, “Ah Mo” (like “Amen”
spoken through the nose). “Amoy was as close as foreigners could
get, and even today, Overseas Chinese refer to “Amoy”, and
Minnan Dialect is called Amoy Dialect not just by foreigners but by Chinese
who speak it.
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I too prefer foreigners to learn the correct name, Xiamen, but I use “Amoy”
in the book title because 1) Xiamen is still hard for foreigners to pronounce,
2) Xiamen is known even today as “Amoy” by Overseas Chinese,
and 3) for those with the slightest bit of Asian history under their belt,
the very word Amoy conjures up exotic vistas and tales. The world uses
“Amoy Soy Sauce,” not Xiamen Soy Sauce. In Hong Kong, bird
flu had an outbreak on Amoy Street, not Xiamen Street. Malaysia’s
Equator Academy of Art is on Amoy Lane, not Xiamen Lane. And last but
not least, the Latin seal of Xiamen University, which was founded not
by foreigners but Chinese, says “Universitatis Amoiensis”—not
So Amoy is not a vocable vestige of foreign imperialism. Amoy is as much
a Chinese word as a foreign word—and it sure sounds more like “Ah
Mo” than “Jiù Jinshan” sounds like San Francisco,
so give us a break. But, out of deference to my Chinese hosts, I usually
refer to our island as Xiamen, not Amoy.
As for that minority that still take umbrage at my sparing use of Amoy,
I throw down the gauntlet. When Chinese start saying Washington instead
of “Huashengdun”, or California instead of “Jialifuniya”,
I will axe Amoy from my vocabulary. But until then—get a life, and
be glad visitors from all over the world are once again flocking to our
island, regardless of what you call her! And having said this….
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Last Updated: May 2007
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