Place names are proper nouns widely used in human languages. They are not only a special cultural phenomenon expressed in a specific language form but also living fossils in the history of mankind. They are nonmaterial cultural heritage and are a target that attracts widespread attention from multiple disciplines such as linguistics, geography, history, archaeology, ethnology, religion, economy, sociology, and culture.
Toponymy is a scientific study of place names from the aspects of linguistics, geography, and cultural history. Toponymy is an independent yet interdisciplinary discipline.
Although the history of the study of place names in China is not as long as the history of place names, the study of place names still has a very long history despite the fact that in early the names the study is not systematic but just sporadic and supplementary.
About the study of place names in China, from a historical perspective on, two kinds of theories worth our concern: one is three-stage theory and the second is two-stage theory.
Since the end of the 1980 s, the study of place names in China embraces a new era. The most spectacular development involves three aspects: One is that many reference books for place names are compiled and published; second is that linguists show great enthusiasm in the study of place names; third is that place name informatization is experiencing rapid growth. Especially, language scholars’ study of place places attracts great attention.
Compared with the developed countries, China lags behind in the study of place names. One the one hand, with a long history, an extensive territory, diverse nationalities, and various dialects, China is has the largest number of place names in the world and can be called a “rich ore” with abundant place names. On the other hand, China has no modern or systematic study of place names. China neither has a regionally systematic study of place names nor hieratically systematic study of place names. Many regions have no study of place names. We just start to manage place names and protection historical place names. Therefore, compared with the “richness” of place names, the study of place names is very “poor”. In the new era, this “richness” and “poverty” contradiction should be balanced. This needs more attention from language scholars to study place names.
Regardless of its disciplinary nature, discipline orientation, study contents and methods, or its theoretical system, is concerned, the study of place names in China need to be further discussed. Only when we make clear these problems and establish an independent modern discipline can the study of place names be really built up.