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Tibet’s Disputed Place-Names

Tibetan place-names on Plates 116-117 of the first edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World (1963) were shown in romanized Tibetan followed by their romanized Chinese names in parentheses.

Tibet map 1963

Tibetan place-names on Plate 86 of the ninth edition of the National Geographic Atlas of the World (2011) are shown in romanized Chinese (Pinyin).

Tibet map 2011

On maps, geographic names—known as toponyms—serve not only as indicators of location but can be powerful symbols of independence and national pride. Discord over such names often stems from legacies of colonialism and nationalism. Regardless of where justice may exist, the colors, lines, and place-names on our maps indicate de facto status of countries or territories at the time of printing. Recently, we have received a few queries regarding our Tibetan place-names policy.

The use of Tibetan place-names on our maps has evolved over time. Until the 1970s, our maps generally displayed traditional romanized Tibetan place-names followed by their romanized Chinese names in parentheses. However, at the Third United Nations Conference on the Standardization of Geographical Names in August 1977, delegates voted on and adopted that Pinyin (a newer romanized form of the Chinese written language) be recognized as the official spelling system for place-names in China. Since the international adoption of this system, most if not all place-names in Tibet have changed to the Pinyin system.Whether the change of traditional romanized Tibetan place-names to Pinyin on our maps might be unrecognized or considered illegal by some, the fact remains that this region is presently administered by China. National Geographic does not purport to be the arbiter or determiner of Tibetan place-names, but simply tries to provide our maps with sufficient information by which this region’s current geopolitical reality can be presented.

Juan José Valdés
The Geographer
Director of Editorial and Research
National Geographic Maps