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The Chinese Language of Things

Dr. Ken Beatty By Dr. Ken Beatty Published on February 24, 2016

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When Westerners think of pigeons, their first thoughts are likely to be of the droppings the foul birds leaves behind but, in China, the pigeon takes the role of the dove, the messenger of peace, and a billion bicycles and countless other products bear the name Flying Pigeon.

Every culture has its own visual language of symbols drawn from mythology, history and popular culture. For international businesses hoping to gain a foothold in the Chinese market, decoding these differences and putting them to work effectively in branding and packaging is a delicate and essential art.

Few symbols have universally agreed-upon meanings. Of these, most have to do with aspects of nature worshipped in ancient times. These animistic interpretations revolve around trees, mountains, and heavenly bodies. Both in China and the West, sunrise and sunset conjure up images of youth and old age. Likewise, the star has always been universally popular for its associations of light amidst darkness, but in China the public also associates it with the five stars on the Chinese flag. This is referred to in many brand names, including one of the more popular beverages, Five Star Beer.

But even among a culture's own symbols, the subtleties of meaning are quite often buried too deep for the average outsider–or even an insider–to reach. Most Westerners associate a horseshoe hung over the door with good fortune, but few would be able to explain the pagan origins or exact purpose of the custom; horseshoes were made of iron, the metal of Mars, the god of war. But for those who invoked him with the horseshoe, it was because of his side occupation as the enemy of witches.

Such details might seem trivial, but how many executives would be fired after having their multimillion-dollar Horseshoe-brand product launch pointing out its associations with witchcraft? In 1988, Proctor and Gamble (P&G) spent considerable time, energy and money tracking down the source of slanderous rumors that interpreted their familiar crescent moon and stars logo with Satanism. It dropped its man-in-the-moon icon but in 1995, had to sue the Amway Corporation when they discovered their attempts to revive the Satanist rumors; P&G was awarded US$19.25 million in a court settlement. In 2013, the company released a new logo, bringing back a subtle suggestion of a moon.

In the Chinese case, it’s not enough to make assumptions on the basis of the customs or beliefs of a small segment of the population, just Beijingers or Cantonese, for example. One must also be sensitive to regional differences. Despite the fact that Westerners wouldn't usually associate any feline with water, White Cat is a very popular brand of dishwashing detergent that sells well in the north and coastal regions of the country, but sales doubtlessly suffer in the southwest, in provinces such as Sichuan, where a cat in any color is thought to bring bad luck.

Similar differences can be seen among the recognizable symbols shared between China and the West, such as the eagle. The American national bird, though denoting strength in both the West and China, is seen by the Chinese as having the additional quality of cruelty. More common symbols for strength are the tiger, which adorns a wide variety of medicines, or the dragon, a masculine symbol often pictured with its feminine counterpart, the phoenix.

The phoenix is also used as a brand name for men's bicycles, presumably for its reputation of bringing good fortune. This quality was the reason it was chosen as the emblem of the national airline, Air China, but it is a dubious choice, considering the bird's habit of periodically returning to its nest and bursting into flames.

The tortoise, admired for its endurance and determination, is also considered a celestial creature along with the phoenix, dragon, and unicorn. Other common symbolic animals in China are the bat, whose Chinese name is a homonym for good luck, and the lion, statues of which stand guard outside important gates and doors. Lions are fairly common in brand identification, although many Westerners might not recognize the statues of stocky beasts with manes of tight curls. The lion was never native to China and the first artists to depict it had to rely on the obscure descriptions of travellers.

But for a Western company to co-opt any of these symbols can possibly be a minefield. The World Wildlife Federation's use of the panda in their logo has been criticized in China for generating a great deal of money (supposedly as a direct result of using the image) yet remitting only a small portion of it to Chinese panda programs.

The message is that certain aspects of Chinese culture such as the panda are emotional property, too closely identified with China and the Chinese people. International companies that use them leave themselves open to charges, however unfounded, of exploitation.

For the company hoping to find a recognizable image to be developed and used not only in China but throughout Asia and the West, there is the challenge of creating a brand identification or packaging design which appeals to the Chinese but neither confuses nor distracts the Western market. Some of the safer images are internationally shared objects and ideas. One example is flowers, such as the peony, which symbolizes wealth and respectability. Another generally safe class of images is numbers.

Numbers, as everywhere else in the world, are popular brand identifiers that have the advantage of being symbols that can both carry meaning and remain recognizable across most language barriers, such as the soda, 7-up. In China one finds periodic use of double digits, such as 99 Brand Cigarettes, but more common is the use of triple digits. The British brand, 555, has been one of the leading Chinese cigarettes for over half a century but the number is now also found adorning other products as diverse as soap and toothpicks.

The most popular calculators ever sold in China were Sharp's fortuitously numbered Model 888; the numbers signify good luck, an important quality for the students and shopkeepers who bought them. The brand's success was shared by an amazingly similar-looking Shrap 888, that also sold very well.

The triple eight also adorns a popular brand of playing cards and, in a society that has largely given up traditional prayers and charms for the birth of male children, Mandarin Duck 888 Bed Sheets may serve as a sort of supernatural, prenatal insurance policy. For a company deciding on a model number it cannot hurt the product's sales to incorporate favorable digits.

But just as there are unlucky animals, not all numbers carry good fortune. Those who try to sell Chinese products or services that feature the number four in their name are likely to meet some market resistance from concerned consumers. Four's connotation of death in Chinese symbolism will probably spell just that for the product.


Author of 130 books in the areas of language teaching and learning and computer-assisted language learning, Ken has lectured in 25 countries giving more than 400 presentations to teachers from ... Show More

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