Place names in Taiwan are a tricky business – many cities have changed names several times over the recorded history of the island. In many cases a pattern emerges of an aboriginal name being ‘sinicised’ by 17th, 18th and 19th century migrants from Fujian. Upon the arrival of the Japanese colonial authorities in Taiwan many of these names changed, before being changed again when Chiang Kai-Shek’s defeated Kuomintang fled China in 1949. The stories (and legends) behind the names of places like Ko1-hiong5 (高雄; Gāoxióng, commonly spelled Kaohsiung) and Taipei City’s Bang2-kah4 (萬華; Wànhuá) District are interesting and in some cases quite possibly apocryphal – some care is needed to distinguish the “folk etymologies” from the real deal when it comes to naming origins.
For example: there is a mountainous area of Tai5pak4 (Taipei) famous for tea-houses and scenic views, which today goes under the Mandarin name Maokong. Recently the city government has constructed a cable car line which takes tourists and cramped city-dwellers up the mountain to experience some fresh(er) air and impressive vistas. The transportation authority responsible offers this explanation of the strange name of the area on a brochure:
How did Maokong (which translates literally as “No cat” in Chinese) get its name? One joking explanation is that it is called “No Cat” because there are no cats in the area. In fact, its name is derived from the Taiwanese “Niaokang,” which refers to the topography of surrounding mountains, which has been scoured and pitted by the runoff from springs. “Niaokang” is a reference to this pitted surface, but it is also a homophone for “cat scratched,” which was rendered as “maokong” in Mandarin.
The website of the same department gives a different view:
In the neighborhood of Zhinan, there are several areas in which river erosion has created holes with large bottoms and small openings on top like teapots, thus resulting in the name, “Niaokeng,” which means “teapot hole” in Taiwanese. Afterwards, the name was changed to a similar-sounding appellation, “Maokong,” which became the present-day name for the entire area. Its former name, Shanzhuchu, meaning “mountain pig cupboard,” comes from the history of mountain pig trapping by local farmers.
A third opinion can be found on Taipei City Government’s ‘Official English Website‘:
While many people know that Maokong is the place to go to enjoy fine tea, few realize how the area got its unusual name, which in Chinese means “cat hollow.” The name comes from the area’s geology. The igneous rock of the valley east of the tea farms of Muzha varies in hardness, such that over the years the creek has eroded and created potholes into the softer areas of the riverbed. Many of these indentations look as if they are the prints of a cat’s paw, inspiring the name “Maokong” as a byword for the tea farms and teahouses of Muzha.
Yet another, from a different brochure:
This area is formed of igneous rock. At the upper reaches of the Dakeng River on the east side of Maokong, the boulders of the riverbed are pitted with pothole-like cavities. The locals describe this unusual geological phenomenon as “niao-kang” in the Hokkien dialect [Taiwanese]. In Mandarin Chinese, the pronunciation is “Maokong,” or literally, “cat hollow.” Over the years, this delightful name has become a byword for the tea farms of Muzha.
So who is right? Are any of them correct?
The current characters used for the area are 貓空, pronounced Māokōng in Mandarin and Niau1-khang1 in Taiwanese. “Cat Hollow” would be a reasonable English approximation of this name. All four explanations mention the geology of the area as being the inspiration for the name, but the third seems implausible (and too direct). The “teapots” mentioned in the second quote is a half-truth – since the characters for the geological feature “pothole” (see picture, left) are “壺穴” (o·5-hiat8 in Taiwanese, húxué in Mandarin) – phonetically very different from the modern “Niau-khang” or “Maokong”.
I suspect the original derivation of Maokong lies closer to the first quote above and comes from the phonetic similarity of three morphemes – 皺 jiau5 (wrinkled, creased), niau1 (pitted, pock-marked) and 貓 niau1 (cat). Chinese sources mention 皺孔 (jiau5-khang2) – literally “creased hole” as being a previous name for the area – it seems likely that this rather prosaic descriptive name was transformed in to something similar-sounding but a little more romantic over the years.
So, the next time someone confidently tells you, for example, that the name Tianmu is derived from an answer in Taiwanese of thian1-bo5 (I don’t understand) to a question from a Mandarin or Japanese speaker, you’ll know to take such enticing etymologies with a pinch of salt (unlike me, the first time I heard that particular story).