The company I work at has a new Chief Executive Officer. This week I accompanied him and the Chairman of our Board on a two-day road-show in Beijing, China. The purpose was to introduce the new CEO to our local Chinese partners in various gas projects, as well as to the regulators and Government officials who oversee foreign oil and gas activities in China.
The first thing we did on arrival in Beijing was to pop into our regional office, so that the new CEO could collect his Chinese business cards. This is because, in China, your business card is a very important thing. There are countless books on Chinese business etiquette that will instruct you on proper business card procedure, and its significance in China’s commercial world. In simple terms, showing up at a Chinese meeting without a business card to offer is the ultimate faux pas – a bit like refusing to shake hands at a Western meeting.
Exchange cards standing up after the initial introduction, and hand your card over with two hands, face up and towards the recipient so that they can read it, as a sign of respect. Consider having your name printed in red or gold, both auspicious colours. When presented with someone else’s business card, examine it closely, and then respectfully put it on the table or in a special business card holder – it is considered incredibly rude to toss it aside or stuff it in your pocket or write on it. Repeat the card ceremony one-on-one with everyone you are meeting; a casual Western-style flicking business cards around the table like you are dealing a game of poker is a definite no-no. And carry lots of cards – boxes of them – because you will likely exchange cards with absolutely everyone you meet.
Chinese business cards formalities reflect the fact that the card is considered to be a representation of the person named on it, and so is something to be treated seriously and respectfully. And, as a representation of the person it identifies, the name on the card and its designation counts. So, a business card should include your English name and title, and then your equivalent Chinese name and title, and it should make you sound as important as is plausible without making you blush.
Where it gets interesting is in the selection of a Chinese name to match your English name. Typically, the way this is done is that your English name is broken up into syllables, and then Chinese characters that have the same sound as those syllables are selected to be your Chinese name.
The tricky part is that unlike English letters, Chinese characters mean something in and of themselves, and there are around 40,000 different characters in Chinese to choose from. So although many characters might sound the same, their meaning can be completely different. A sloppy translation of the syllables of your English name might result in a Chinese name with an inappropriate meaning.
Consider for instance the vanilla English name “Henry”. There is no “r” sound in Chinese, so the closest phonetic rendering is two sounds: “Hen” and “Lei”. There are many Chinese character options to choose from to match these sounds, and if you weren’t paying attention you might as an example pick a character for “hen” that means “very”, and “lei” that means “exhausted”. The result is that any Chinese person receiving your business card would read your name as “I’m feeling tired”. Possibly not the image you want to convey at a first meeting.
The art is therefore to find Chinese characters which sound out your English name, and which at the same time convey a meaning consistent with the image you want to create of yourself. Or at the very least, you want characters that give you a Chinese name that is not comic, offensive, or worse.
Back in the office in Beijing, the new CEO’s freshly printed business cards had arrived, in English on one side, and with embossed red Chinese characters spelling out his Chinese name on the reverse-side. He politely enquired of our office manager as to how to pronounce the Chinese characters, and duly noted that down. He then asked what the characters meant. The answer: “Lucky Golden Wheat”. Somehow, the office in China had selected characters for the CEO’s Chinese name which, whilst perhaps fantastic if he were a breakfast cereal or a beer, is arguably not the best of names for the CEO of a global unconventional gas exploration company. (To be fair, at a meeting with a very senior Government Official the next day, this newly minted Chinese name was complemented as being a very good name. Who knew?).
I pointed out to Mr. Lucky Golden Wheat (or, to be more exact about what it says on his card, President Lucky Golden Wheat – he is the boss after all) that he was not alone in this experience. Many first-timers to China have been caught unawares in a similar way, sometimes spectacularly so.
Although possibly an urban myth, a great story in this category is about the Coca-Cola Company. So the story goes, when Coke was first introduced into China in 1928, it was known as “Ko–Ka–Ko–La”: a direct break-up of the English words Coca-Cola into four sound-alike syllables. Unfortunately, however, the matching Chinese character selected for the sound “La” meant “wax”, and the characters for the other three syllables were equally poorly chosen. Somehow, along the way, the initial name for Coca-Cola in the Middle Kingdom literally read as: “bite the wax tadpole”.
If the story is true, Coke eventually realised the error and changed their Chinese name. A character that sounded like “Ler”, which means “joy”, was selected to replace the offending “La”. When combined with three other carefully chosen characters, they came up with “Ko-Kou-Ko-Ler”, which sounded close enough to Coca-Cola, but for which the Chinese characters now had the added benefit of meaning “happiness in the mouth”. That has got to sound more tempting than being invited to chow down on a waxed frogling.
Sometimes, the Chinglish can work in the opposite direction, too. Take for example Chinese company names. When translated into English, corporate names which the Chinese consider perfectly normal can sound completely absurd. I once served as a director of a Chinese company which, when its name was translated into English, became the slightly less than humble “Prosperous Billion Dollar Fortune Company Ltd”. Things became even more bizarre when we decided to wind-up the company through a process of voluntary administration. Until it eventually disappeared, the company was known for a while as the rather odd “Prosperous Billion Dollar Fortune Company Ltd (Receivers and Administrators Appointed)”.
When the Chinese encounter an English name that does not have a ready equivalent in Chinese, a special kind of inventiveness in translating is required. In particular, this has played out in some really weird Chinese renditions of English movie titles. Tom Cruise’s Risky Business in Chinese characters reads: “Just Send Him To University Unqualified”. The big budget catastrophe movie Deep Impact became the rather unimaginative: “Earth And Comet Collide”. Nixon: “The Big Liar”. The Full Monty: “Six Stripped Pigs”. Boogie Nights: “His Powerful Device Makes Him Famous”. And my all-time favourite example of a movie name gone horribly wrong, The Crying Game, translated into Chinese as: “My Girlfriend’s Got a Penis”. Kind of gives it away a bit, don’t you think?
As for me, I wasn’t able to laugh too long or too loud at President Lucky Golden Wheat’s name. People in glass houses…..
My Chinese name consists of my first name – “Eytan” – broken into the two sounds of “Ai” and “Tan”, and represented by two Chinese characters: “Ai”, meaning “Love”, and a character sounding out as “Tan” meaning “Honour”. So apparently, my Chinese name is a strong, masculine one that means something like “Love and Honour”.
However, when asked by President Lucky Golden Wheat as to the meaning of my name, our office manager (whose Chinese is great but whose English is somewhat lacking) translated the word “Tan” into “Responsible”. Which gave Lucky Golden Wheat all the ammunition he needed to retaliate, and so my nom-de-guerre in the company has now become “The Responsible Lover”.
Actually, it could have been much worse. When I first moved to Asia eight years ago, I asked the lady at the local print shop in Singapore who was designing my business cards to help me to choose a suitable Chinese name. She chose the “Ai” character for “love”, but then unbeknownst to me, she chose a character for the sound “Tan” which is the same character as appears in the word “Wan-Tan”, those ever-delicious stuffed dough balls that are found on every Chinese menu, boiled in soups or fried until crispy.
So for the first eighteen months of my business life in China, at more meetings than I can count, I proudly handed over a name card that introduced me as “Love Dumpling” (with two hands, mind you, and in full compliance with all aforementioned rules of Chinese business card etiquette). It was only after a kindly lady in Hong Kong took pity on me one day, delicately pointing out how truly ridiculous my Chinese name sounded, did I change it to become “Love and Honour”.
Imagine the possibility that could have otherwise been: President Lucky Golden Wheat, on tour in China, accompanied by his sidekick the Love Dumpling.
Now that would have made for an interesting road-show.