‘Seoul Searching’: The History, Politics and Prejudice behind the Re-naming of Korea’s Capital in Chinese

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Hyun Jin KIM
Peter Mauch
Niv Horesh


On 19 January 2005, Seoul Mayor at the time and South Korea’s president at present, Lee Myung Bak, announced his desire to see the Chinese name for Seoul changed from the traditional rendition of Hancheng (漢城), to Shouer (首爾). Lee made clear that he was motivated by a simple desire to remove a potential cause for Sino-Korean “confusion.” He further suggested that the principal beneficiary of the name change would be those Chinese in some way connected to Seoul. If Mayor Lee had hoped for an uncontroversial re-naming, he was proven right for the most part. Not only did the Chinese government grant Mayor Lee’s wish quickly and quietly, but regional media outlets also remained notably low-key on the naming issue. This article argues, nonetheless, that there is good reason to believe that Lee’s move was driven by overarching concerns about China’s growing regional clout, and that the significance of Seoul’s name change in Chinese extends well beyond semantics; it can in a sense be seen as a test-case for the PRC’s ability to leverage soft power in the region, and allay the concerns of its neighbours about the implications of its geo-strategic rise.

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Author Biographies

Hyun Jin KIM, University of Sydney

Hyun Jin KIM took his D. Phil. from the University of Oxford. He is currently the Australian Research Council DECRA fellow at the University of Sydney, Department of Classics and Ancient History. His main areas of expertise are Ancient Greco-Roman history and ethnography and comparative literature on Greece and China. He is the author of the book Ethnicity and Foreigners in Ancient Greece and China (London, Duckworth: 2009). He has also recently completed a second book with Cambridge University Press titled The Huns, Rome and the Birth of Europe, which will appear in 2013. He is at present working on a new project titled Transfer of Hegemony: Geopolitical Revolutions in World History.

Peter Mauch, Uviersity of Western Sydney

Peter Mauch lectures in Asian Studies and International Relations at the University of Western Sydney, Australia. He has authored a number of books on Japanese-U.S. relations, including (most recently) Sailor Diplomat: Nomura Kichisaburo and the Japanese-American War. He is currently preparing for publication a re-examination of the road to the Pearl Harbor attack.

Niv Horesh, University of Western Sydney

Niv HORESH荷尼夫 is the guest editor of this special issue. In 2011, he was appointed Associate Professor in Chinese Studies at the School of Communication Arts, University of Western Sydney. Amongst his research interests are Shanghai's economy, past and present; world monetary history and the 'Great Divergence' across pre-modern and early-modern Eurasia. Along with Dr Emilian Kavalski, he is the also editing a forthcoming essay volume entitled Asian Thought on China's Changing International Relations.