One of the embarrassments awaiting just about any student of Chinese who studies first in the US and then goes to Taiwan is being laughed at for sounding too formal. One of the many habits I picked up which provoked comment in rural Taiwan was relying almost entirely on the more formal 星期 (xingqi) as opposed to the more common (in Taiwan) 禮拜 (libai). However, I also learned that some people avoided the term 禮拜 because of its religious roots. 禮拜 also means to worship, as in attending a Christian church on Suday, and the term is closely linked with missionary activity. Thanks to a post by Languagehat, I discovered a site devoted to the “Days of the Week in Chinese, Japanese, and Vietnamese,” which has this essay about the term 禮拜:
The campaign against the word 禮拜 li3-bai4 seems to have been most successful in Mainland China, especially in the north. Shogakkan’s ‘Chunichi Jiten’ (中日辭典, Chinese-Japanese Dictionary) comments as follows:
In China, days were originally counted in 詢 xun2 (ten-day units), but after the coming of Christianity, the concept of the seven-day week was born. The fact that the weeks and days of the week are called 禮拜天 li3-bai4-tian1 [sic] is related to this. Even now the word 禮拜 li3-bai4 is more commonly used in Chinese-speaking areas of Taiwan and South-east Asia than the word 星期 xing1-qi1. Even on the mainland, 禮拜 li3-bai4 is still commonly used in conversation to refer to weeks and days of the week.
This difference can be clearly seen in a comparison of written Chinese on the Mainland and Taiwan. As an example, the Mainland translation of the ‘Harry Potter’ books exclusively uses the word [星期] xing1-qi1 whereas the Taiwanese version uses a mixture of [星期] xing1-qi1 and 禮拜 li3-bai4, as well as [周] zhou1.
I especially appreciate the use of Harry Potter, since that is how I’ve been practicing my Chinese!
UPDATE: After reading Antti’s comment, I realized I never really finished this post. You see, what is really interesting is the second part of this discussion, on 星期, where the author (Greg Pringle) concludes that the term is actually a modern replacement for 禮拜, and that the common etymology (which argues the reverse) is actually made up!
All these circumstances point to the strong possibility that 星期 xing1-qi1 is a modern innovation that came about in order to displace the word 禮拜 li3-bai4. The pedigree for 星期 xing1-qi1 is a ‘forgery’ — a convenient fiction designed to back up the status of 星期 xing1-qi1as the ‘correct’ word for ‘week’ in Chinese.
Greg points out that whereas “禮拜 li3-bai4 is first attested in 1828. 星期 xing1-qi1 first appeared in 1889.”