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What's in a name? - by John Pickup (Táng Cháo Mandarin Academy)

Quite a lot if it’s in China.

A name has a significance which is often totally lost on Western people. A good name conveys in an instant a whole range of information and feelings about a product or service in China which we in the West just don’t notice.

This perhaps best illustrated with an example: When Microsoft wanted to launch its own search engine to compete against Google, they chose a short, snappy, easy to remember name – “Bing”. They had searched all over the world to get that name. But they hadn’t asked the Chinese. Because in China, the word pronounced “Bing” in Mandarin includes meanings such as sickness, disease, illness, even virus. Not good for Microsoft!

Quickly and fortuitously, they came up with Bi-ying, which is a totally different name and which means “must respond”. But not before there was a lot of social media comment about "bing". So they got off to a bad start, - and still have a very small market share.

And now the all-time favourite example: Coca-Cola, which probably did most to raise the awareness of the importance of a good Chinese name. The Chinese name for Coca-Cola is “KeKouKeLe”. It sounds very much like the English name, but it means “delicious and happy ” so it conveys feelings of fun and good taste.

An early attempt to create a Chinese name was a phonetic transliteration. But unfortunately, as Chinese characters have different meanings depending on the context, when put together the phonetic combination 蝌蚪啃蜡 (Ke Dou Ken La) could have the meaning: “tadpole bites the wax”.

By a stroke of genius a different set of characters was found which had the meaning “to permit mouth to be able to be happy” in Mandarin. Coca-Cola spent £3.5m as a prize for people who came up with the best Chinese name. A Chinese professor, Jiang Yi (known as Chiang Yee), based in London came up with the name.

So just getting a phonetic sounding name is full of pitfalls. When creating a Chinese name, ideally you must use someone who has an appreciation of Chinese poetry and literature.

We in the West might think of the Chinese as just hard headed materialistic hard working achievers. But deep down there is a romantic streak and an appreciation of poetry which people ignore at their peril. For example even in rush-rush Beijing, taxi drivers in a traffic jam might be found listening to classic Chinese stories. So to have a name which has associations with Chinese literature and culture has a great advantage – it shows warmth and empathy.

For example, the name of the Chinese search engine – Baidu – is taken from a famous Song Dynasty poem, which every Chinese knows about:

In olden days, young ladies were kept in the family compound. They were allowed out on just one Festival day of the year. On that day a young nobleman caught a glimpse of a beautiful maiden. In the chaos of the celebrations, he lost sight of her. He searched and searched and searched a thousand times until at last he found her. This is regarded as symbolic of the search for one’s dreams. The last line of the poem is


“Having searched thousands of time in the crowd,
She is there in the dimmest light”.

A truly romantic poem.

And what Baidu conveys as a search engine, resonates with that beautiful poem. Haifeng Wang, VP at Baidu is quoted:

Our name was inspired by a poem written more than 800 years ago during China's Song Dynasty. The poem compares the search for a retreating beauty amid chaotic glamour with the search for one's dreams while confronted by life's many obstacles. “…Hundreds and thousands of times, for her I searched in chaos / Suddenly, I turned by chance, to where the lights were waning, and there she stood." Baidu, whose literal meaning is “hundreds of times,” represents a persistent search for the ideal.

Against that, the Chinese name for Google – “guge” – sounds rustic and coarse. Google didn't have a chance.

There are many examples of names which should be OK to Western ears , but to Chinese ears they are meaningless or worse.

Once, when we were developing a Chinese name, our Chinese linguist ended up with a shortlist. She told me “that’s a good name” “That’s not a good name” but she couldn’t explain why. I just had to trust her.

There are so many factors to be taken into account. Is it unashamedly Western? Or does it just hint at a western company. Or does it want to feel totally Chinese.

A further complication is that there are many minority languages in China. Mandarin is now the official language “putonghua”, which means common language. But although no longer officially spoken, these minority languages are still part of the culture, and due regard must be paid to what a name sounds like in the major minority languages.

On one assignment we developed a very good name in Mandarin. Two good characters which were easy to pronounce. But a linguistic study pointed out that in one of the minority languages it was reminiscent of a phrase referring to dead bodies floating. So that had to go.

Another brilliant Chinese name is for BMW : Bao-ma. A “Precious Horse”. This refers to a very precious breed of horse from Turkmenistan known as Ferghana. In 2013, the year of the horse, the president of Turkmenistan gave the Chinese president, Xi Jinping, a Ferghana, which was regarded as a great honour.

So when a young thrusting Chinese entrepreneur jumps into his Baoma, he is bestowing on himself the best success qualities. Incidentally, with a stoke of brilliant marketing, in 2013, the year of the horse, BMW produced a limited edition of just ten luxurious BMWs, with the finest leather seating etc at a fantastic price.

So naming in China is not a trivial exercise. One could stop any Chinese-looking person in London’s Oxford Street and ask them to give you a Chinese name. And for the price of a cup of coffee you could get one. A very risky strategy. Or one could do the job properly and look at the meaning one wants to convey, come up with a huge range of potential names, check the minority languages and any similar Chinese names – and register it quickly.

There is a rule in China known as the First to File rule. Any company who gets wind of your intentions could nip in and register your name first. This has caught out many Western companies, and although it can be overturned, it can be very expensive.

But that it the subject of another blog.

Professor Jiang Yi (top); Coca-Cola in China, 1930s (middle); logo of Baidu (bottom)
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