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Doing Business in China: What’s in a Name? In China, A Lot More Than You Think

By Doug Young

So, you’ve made the big decision to come to China. You’ve allocated the budgets, decided on where to set up shop and even have some preliminary local contacts to help you sell your products or services. Now just one thing remains: Naming your baby.

Unlike other countries, China presents several unique challenges to choosing corporate names due to its lack of an alphabetic system and the presence of many dialects that are still widely spoken in parts of the country, even though Mandarin is the national language. Those factors and several others can create a minefield for someone trying to pick a name on their own, leading to something that, for example, could mean “spicy wax pulling virtue” or other nonsense for a simple sound-based translation.

There are also all sorts of other hidden meanings, such as literary references, in a culture whose status as one of the world’s oldest means it’s full of names, places and events that are household references to many but unknown to outsiders.

My own Chinese name is a good case in point of the kinds of issues one faces. It’s Yang Ge, translating to “Song of the Sun” in English, and is loosely based on my real name. What’s more, it was even given to me by a Taiwanese friend, who told me when I first came to Asia in 1986 that it was quite poetic and sounded very cultured. And yet despite that, I’m frequently lectured on inappropriate things about the name by my Chinese friends.

Highest on their list is that my “Ge,” which means “song,” is a homonym for “elder brother.” As a result, people who call me by my Chinese name sometimes jokingly complain that it sounds like “Elder Brother Yang,” a term of respect for someone older than you. That’s increasingly fine these days as I get older and many people I interact with are younger than me. But it’s also occasionally awkward when, for example, I meet an older CEO and it sounds like I’m telling him to call me Elder Brother Yang.

Then there’s my “Yang” character, which means “sun,” and is also the source of occasional controversy. That’s because that particular character is rarely used in surnames, even though another character with the same sound is quite common. That sometimes leads friends to ask why I don’t use the more-common Yang character, and mildly berate me for trying to be different.

The point of reviewing my own name in such detail is to show the kinds of unexpected issues that frequently crop up when choosing a Chinese name. Accordingly, I would highly advise hiring a professional consultant when making such a choice. It may be a little more expensive, but is probably worth the value since a name will be the first thing people see when getting to know your company.

Basic rules

All that said, there are still a few simple rules that experts agree on when picking Chinese names for foreign companies, according to a few consultants who shared their respective experiences with me. One of the most basic is trying to keep a sound element that corresponds to the company’s original name. A second is to be mindful of the meaning of actual characters and find ones that somehow reflect what your company does or stands for. That’s quite unique to China, since all names are created from strings of characters that have meanings in addition to sounds.

A couple of examples that frequently get cited as favorites are the names for high-end car brands Mercedes-Benz and BMW. The former’s name, pronounced “Benchi,” means “to gallop,” sounding relatively close to the original German and also evoking images of powerful running horses. BMW is similar, pronounced “Baoma,” which again means “precious horse,” evoking images of a galloping steed.

Then there are a few other elements, including making sure your name doesn’t sound too much like an existing brand and confirming it isn’t already registered. It’s also important to test it out to make sure it doesn’t sound strange in any of the four or five main Chinese dialects besides Mandarin, an important consideration for those who want to do business nationally.

I polled some of my Chinese friends for names they liked, and their responses were led by the Chinese for Coca-Cola (“tasty happiness”), as well as names liked French grocery giant Carrefour (“prosperous, happy home”) and high-tech equipment maker Cisco (“thoughtful technology”). Coke’s current name contrasts sharply with one of its earliest names in China that’s a textbook case of a bad choice. That one sounded more similar to its English, but had the silly meaning of “tadpole tadpole chewing wax.”

We’ll close with a few unusual cases and some of the dogs, illustrating the kinds of unexpected issues one might encounter. Two of those involved literary references, led by the name for Revlon, whose name, “Luhuanong,” sounds like an ancient classical poem about beauty, according to one friend who was quite full of praise for the designation.

In a similar but more-negative vein, one of my former students was quite turned off by the name for the big accounting firm KPMG, which is pronounced “Bimawei” and has the nonsensical meaning of “complete a horse with authority”. His objection wasn’t related to that meaning, but rather to its pronunciation that was similar to that of a well-known stable boy from the classic novel “Journey to the West,” which carried a slightly negative connotation.

A group of my former students were also quite negative about the newly chosen name for shared economy specialist Airbnb, which chose “Aibiying,” or “love the other welcome,” following its recent entry to China. In that case, most were turned off by its tongue-twister qualities rather than its meaning, again pointing to an important element for consideration.

All this points to the bottom line, which is that naming in China is quite a complex game, and it’s best to proceed with caution and professional help.

Doug Young has lived in Greater China for two decades, including a 10-year stint at Reuters, where he led China corporate news coverage. Send your questions or comments to DougYoung@caixin.com.

 

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