Have you ever wondered how and why Chinese company English names are chosen?
Many articles have been written discussing how foreign companies chose their Chinese name, but there has been very little analysis about the opposite situation.
China Checkup decided to take a closer look at this issue. Our research has identified how and why Chinese company English names are picked and we have categorized the different approaches Chinese companies have taken.
Why do Chinese Companies have English Names?
Actually most Chinese companies don't have an English name - they are small shops, restaurants and services with only Chinese customers in China. They simply do not require an English name.
Companies which are dealing with foreign companies, and foreigners in general, will have an English name however, and these are the companies which you will encounter when doing business in China.
One key reason why such Chinese companies have an English name is simply that they want to get paid! The vast majority of foreign customers, and their banks, are unable to read and write Chinese so having an English name means they can accept payments via international transfers systems such as SWIFT.
A Quick Note on "Chosen Names"
Before we jump in and introduce our findings, we quickly need to explain that in this article we are focusing on Chinese companies' "Chosen Name".
For example the "Alibaba" (阿里巴巴) in "Alibaba Group Holding Limited" (阿里巴巴集团控股有限公司). See more on how Chinese company names are structured here.
Different Categories of Chinese Company English Names
After spending much time looking into and discussing this issue, we have created a system to classify the different types of Chinese company English names, which we will introduce in this article.
We found that, broadly speaking, nearly all Chinese companies choose an English name which fits into one of these 4 main categories:
- Chinese-Sounding Name
- English-Language Name (i.e. a name that is a word in English)
- English Compound Name (i.e. a name that is comprised of more than one English word)
- Invented Name
Further to that we identified the 8 most common methodologies that Chinese companies use for choosing their "English name" - these range from simply writing their company's Chinese name in Pinyin, to inventing a somewhat misleading brand new word seemingly unrelated to their Chinese name!
Table of Chinese Company English Names Categorization
In this table it is easy to identify which of the 8 methodologies are applicable to each of the 4 name categories.
We're aware that this is probably getting a little complicated by now, especially if you don't read Chinese, so we have provided an example of a Chinese company for each combination.
Below is an explanation and further examples for each category of Chinese company English name:
A - Chinese Sounding Names
These are the names which are effectively still Chinese names, just written using the Latin alphabet. We identified 4 different methods they follow:
A1 - Chinese Name in Pinyin
- Example 1: Huawei (华为 / huá wéi)
- Example 2: Xiaomi (小米 / xiǎo mǐ)
- Example 3: Baidu (百度 / bǎi dù)
- Example 4: Pingan (平安 / píng ān)
- Example 5: Suning (苏宁 / sū níng)
- Example 6: Youku (优酷 / yōu kù)
- Example 7: Qunar (去哪儿 / qù nǎ ér)
These companies have an English name which is the same as their Chinese name, and written in standard Pinyin.
A2 - Chinese Name using Non-Pinyin System
- Example 1: Tsingtao (青岛 / qīng dǎo)
- Example 2: Chunghwa (中华 / zhōng huá)
- Example 3: Moutai (茅台 / máo tái)
- Example 4: Changyu (张裕 / zhāng yù)
Although pinyin is the official method for transliterating Chinese into English, it is not the only one. These names each follow a different transliteration system.
A3 - Chinese Name not in Mandarin
- Example 1: Luk Fook (六福 / liù fú)
- Example 2: Chow Sang Sang (周生生 / zhōu shēng shēng)
- Example 3: Lee Kum Kee (李锦记 / lǐ jǐn jì)
This category is more applicable to companies based in Hong Kong or Guangdong province where Cantonese is commonly used.
A4 - Initials of Chinese Name in Pinyin
- Example 1: JD (京东 / jīng dōng)
- Example 2: BYD (比亚迪 / bǐ yà dí)
- Example 3: SF (顺丰 / shùn fēng)
This approach takes the initials of the company's name in pinyin to be their English name.
B - English Language Name
Many Chinese companies choose an English word or a combination of English words to be their company's English name. However there are many different ways they go about this:
B4 - Initials of Translation into English
- Example 1: ICBC (中国工商银行 / Industrial and Commercial Bank of China)
- Example 2: ZTE (中兴 / Zhongxing Telecommunication Equipment)
- Example 3: PICC (中国人保 / People's Insurance Company of China)
First their Chinese name is translated into English, then the initials of that name are used to form a new English company name.
B5 - Translation into English
- Example 1: Great Wall (长城 / cháng chéng)
- Example 2: Bank of Shanghai (上海银行 / shàng hǎi yín háng)
- Example 3: China Eastern Airlines (中国东方航空 / zhōng guó dōng fāng háng kōng)
This is one of the most common and sensible methods - the English name is simply a translation of their company's Chinese name.
B6 - Sound Adaption into English Word
- Example 1: Belle (百丽 / bǎi lì)
- Example 2: Garden (嘉顿 / jiā dùn)
- Example 3: Poly (保利 / bǎo lì)
Sometimes a Chinese company's official name sounds similar to an English word and this word is then chosen to be the company's English name.
In many cases names chosen by sound adaption are no accident - many Chinese companies choose their official name because it sounds like an English word.
B7 - Unrelated English Word
- Example 1: Warrior (回力 / huí lì)
- Example 2: Herborist (佰草集 / bǎi cǎo jí)
- Example 3: Acer (宏碁 / hóng qí)
- Example 4: Tik Tok (抖音 / dǒu yīn)
These names are comprised of one or more English words but have no direct connection to the company's official Chinese name.
B8 - English Name of Foreign Parent Company
- Example 1: Apple (苹果 / píng guǒ)
- Example 2: Nike (耐克 / nài kè)
- Example 3: Puma (彪马 / biāo mǎ)
When foreign companies establish an entity in China they need to do so under a new Chinese company name. It naturally follows though that they continue to use their original English name for international business.
C - English Compound Name
Other Chinese companies choose an English compound name to be their company's English name. These are names which are made up of two or more English words (just like "Micro-Soft" or "Face-Book").
C5 - Translation into English Compound Name
- Example 1: Evergrande (恒大 / héng dà)
- Example 2: NetEase (网易 / wǎng yì)
These names are usually derived by translating each character from the Chinese chosen name and combining to make a new English name.
C6 - Sound Adaption into English Compound Name
- Example 1: Mobike (摩拜 / mó bài)
- Example 2: Hikvision (海康威视 / hǎi kāng wēi shì)
- Example 3: Youngor (雅戈尔 / yǎ gē ěr)
In these cases the company's chosen name in Chinese is adapted to create an English compound name.
C7 - An Unrelated English Compound Name
- Example 1: Tencent (腾讯 / téng xùn)
- Example 2: UnionPay (银联 / yín lián)
- Example 3: AliPay (支付宝 / zhī fù bǎo)
- Example 4: By-Health (汤臣倍健 / tāng chén bèi jiàn)
- Example 5: Ctrip (携程 / xié chéng)
Some English compound names are chosen for branding purposes or simply because they sound unique and cool. There is no direct correlation between their Chinese and English name.
C8 - English Compound Name of Foreign Parent Company
- Example 1: Starbucks (星巴克 / xīng bā kè)
- Example 2: Quiksilver (极速骑板 / jí sù qí bǎn)
This category is specific to foreign companies with English compound names that have entered the Chinese market.
D - Invented Name
Making up a new word to use as a company name isn't anything new - just ask Google or Ikea! Chinese companies are no different and they can be very inventive when it comes to creating a new English brand or company name.
D6 - Sound Adaption into Invented Name
- Example 1: Midea (美的 / měi dì)
- Example 2: Robam (老板 / lǎo bǎn)
- Example 3: Gree (格力 / gé lì)
Sometimes a Chinese company's name just doesn't sound quite right in English, but if they are just adjusted a little bit then....
It is hard to be sure but this is how we think these English names were created - by making a small adjustment to their Chinese name to create a new word.
D7 - An Unrelated Invented Name
- Example 1: Lenovo (联想 / lián xiǎng)
- Example 2: Chando (自然堂 / zì rán táng)
- Example 3: Asus (华硕 / huá shuò)
- Example 4: BenQ (明基 / míng jī)
These names are all invented words which seemingly have no relation to the official Chinese name.
D8 - Invented Name of Foreign Parent Company
- Example 1: Pepsi (百事 / bǎi shì)
- Example 2: Lego (乐高 / lè gāo)
- Example 3: Nokia (诺基亚 / nuò jī yà)
This is a special category for foreign companies in China with invented English names.
A Few Interesting Cases
Not all Chinese company English names fit neatly into our categorization system and for many companies an argument can be made for inclusion in multiple categories.
Whilst researching this subject we found a few special cases which we found to be quite interesting:
- Alibaba (阿里巴巴) - this name is actually quite unusual because the pinyin of "阿里巴巴" (Ālǐbābā) is identical to the English word of the same meaning! It comes from the Arabic story "Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves".
- 3C (三匚) - this is so unusual that we only found one case like this. Here the Chinese character “匚” looks like the letter "C" - so the name 3C was chosen (三 is the Chinese character for 3).
- TCL - there are actually a handful of companies that were registered in Mainland China using "English" initials. This is no longer allowed but a few companies registered like this in Mainland China still exist.
- 3M - we noticed that this famous American firm has registered a number of entities in China whose names start with "3M".