For major cities and other places that already had widely accepted European names, traditional spellings were retained. With regard to other place names, the post office revised policy several times. Spellings given could reflect the local pronunciation, Nanjing pronunciation, or Beijing pronunciation. Although pronunciation-based arguments were made for each option, using postal romanization to determine any form of Chinese pronunciation was limited by the fact that the system dropped all dashes, diacritics, and apostrophes, to facilitate telegraphic transmission.
At a conference held in 1906 in Shanghai, the post office selected a system of romanization developed by Herbert Giles called "Nanking syllabary." Although Beijing dialect had served as a national standard since the mid-19th century, the system adopted was based on Nanjing pronunciation. The system corresponded to various traditional romanizations that were adopted in the 18th century when Nanjing dialect was considered standard. French-appointed administrators ran the post office at this time, and they sought a less-anglicized alternative to Wade-Giles.
An imperial edict issued in 1896 renamed the Maritime Customs Post, reorganized this agency as a national postal service, and established the Imperial Post Office. In 1899, Robert Hart, as inspector general of posts, asked postmasters to submit romanizations for their districts.
Although Hart asked for transliterations "according to the local pronunciation," most postmasters were reluctant to play lexicographer and simply looked up the relevant characters in a dictionary. The spellings that they submitted generally followed a system created by Thomas Francis Wade, now called the Wade-Giles system. The system had been developed in 1859 and was based on the Beijing pronunciation. It became the standard method of romanizing Chinese after Herbert Giles published a dictionary, using the system, in 1892.
The post office published a draft romanization map in 1903.
Disappointed with the Wade-based map, Hart made another attempt to promote localism in 1905. He directed the postmasters to submit romanizations "not as directed by Wade, but according to accepted or usual local spellings." Local missionaries could be consulted, Hart suggested. However, Wade's system reflected pronunciation in most areas served by the post office, at least in Mandarin-speaking areas.[n 1]
A more serious disadvantage was that the French viewed Wade's system as anglophone. The top position in the post office was held by Postal Secretary Théophile Piry, who had been appointed in 1901 in part from the influence of the French government. Until 1911, the post office remained part of the Maritime Customs Service. As customs inspector general, Hart was Piry's boss, but French backing effectively gave Piry a postal fiefdom.
Piry responded to Hart's moves by organising an Imperial Postal Joint-Session Conference in Shanghai in the spring of 1906. As it was a joint postal and telegraphic conference, it allowed Piry to go over Hart's head. The conference resolved that existing spellings would be retained for all names already transliterated. Accents, apostrophes, and hyphens would be dropped to facilitate telegraphic transmission. The requirement for addresses to be given in Chinese characters was also dropped. For new transliterations, local pronunciation would be followed in Guangdong as well as in parts of Guangxi and Fujian. In other areas, a system called Nanking syllabary would be used.
Nanking syllabary was presented by Giles in his Dictionary.[n 2] Despite the name, the system was not tied to any city but was based on Southern Mandarin, an idealized form of the Jianghuai dialect spoken in the lower Yangtze region. Jianghuai is a divergent form of Mandarin and is widely spoken in both Jiangsu and Anhui provinces. In Giles' idealization, the speaker consistently makes various phonetic distinctions not made in Beijing dialect (or in the dialect of any other specific city). Giles created the system to encompass a range of dialects. It also corresponds roughly to traditional romanizations such as "Peking" and "Nanking," created by French missionaries in the 17th and 18th century, when the Nanjing dialect was a lingua franca. The selection of Nanking syllabary did not suggest that the post office was treating Nanjing pronunciation as standard. The principal advantage of the system was that it allowed "the romanization of non-English speaking people to be met as far as possible," as Piry put it.
Atlases explaining postal romanization were issued in 1907, 1919, 1933, and 1936. The divided and nuanced result of the 1906 conference led critics to complain that postal romanization was idiosyncratic. According to modern scholar Lane J. Harris:
What they have criticized is actually the very strength of postal romanization. That is, postal romanization accommodated local dialects and regional pronunciations by recognizing local identity and language as vital to a true representation of the varieties of Chinese orthoepy as evinced by the Post Office's repeated desire to transcribe according to "local pronunciation" or "provincial sound-equivalents."
Prompted by a 1919 Ministry of Education decision to teach the Beijing dialect in elementary schools, the post office briefly reverted to Wade's system in 1920 and 1921. It was the era of the May Fourth Movement, when language reform was the rage and the Beijing dialect was promoted as a national standard. The post office adopted a dictionary by William Edward Soothill as its standard reference. While the Soothill-Wade system was adopted for newly created offices, all existing romanizations were retained.
China's internal politics did not override Anglo-French rivalry for long. In December 1921, Codirector Henri Picard-Destelan quietly ordered a return to Nanking syllabary "until such time as uniformity is possible." Although the Soothill-Wade period was brief, it was a time when 13,000 offices were created, a rapid and unprecedented expansion. At the time the policy was reversed, one third of all postal establishments used Soothill-Wade spelling.
In 1943, the Japanese ousted A.M Chapelain, the last French head of the Chinese post. The post office had been under French administration almost continuously since Piry's appointment as postal secretary in 1901.[n 3]
The Chinese Communists seized power in 1949 and announced the abolition of postal romanization in 1964. All the same, the system remained in common use until the 1980s. China Daily, an official English-language news source, adopted pinyin romanization in 1981, and the system was adopted by the International Organization for Standardization in 1982.
Postal romanization remained official in Taiwan until 2002, when Tongyong Pinyin was adopted. In 2009, Hanyu Pinyin replaced Tongyong Pinyin as the official romanization (see Chinese language romanization in Taiwan). While street names in Taipei have been romanized via Hanyu Pinyin, municipalities throughout Taiwan, such as Kaohsiung and Taichung, presently use a number of romanizations, including Tongyong Pinyin and postal romanization.