Chinese wordplay for PR

China's linguistic heritage is rich with repartee possibilities. Véronique Michel looks at how the language has moved online and what opportunity that may have in store of PR pros

Véronique Michel
Véronique Michel

Full of subtleties, Chinese culture can be a delight for curious minds. With its common sayings, popular wisdom, wordplay and homophones, it demonstrates that communication is an art and the ability to look below the surface is a valuable key to success.

To begin with, names are often a way to promote one´s values and image. For instance, the name "Hao Shuai" (Hao Shuài) is the homophone of "good looking" (hao shuài) or "Jian Kang" (jiànkang) has a similar pronunciation as "good health" (jiànkang). One of my friends called her child "Zheng Qian" (zhèng qián) that sounds like the promise of "earning money" (zhèng qián).

Advice I offer to PR experts (including those who do not speak Chinese and may not be Chinese culture experts themselves) is this: Be curious.

Don’t be afraid to ask around you if you find something puzzling. And do not hesitate to put your beliefs into question. Very often when we approach a new culture, we tend to be stuck in thoughts from the old one (our own). But it is essential to keep a fresh eye on things. It is not a question of knowing several languages; it is a question of being open-minded with some humility in one´s approach.  

Let me give you a concrete example: One day a Chinese friend offered me a nice drawing with a lot of red beans pasted on it. I was surprised and puzzled and finally asked, "why red beans?"

The reply was simple - red beans mean "I will miss you". Frankly, even with all my studies in and of China, I would not have been able to guess this. So the best thing is just admit that you do not know everything and that you are ready to work on it.

From La communication à la chinoise (Chinese communication style), SEPIA publishing company, March 2012, author Véronique Michel

In China, a wide range of local companies and products take their names from famous mythological figures. For instance, a renowned seven-star hotel in Beijing is named Pangu, who is the creator of the earth and the sky. A satellite China launched takes its name from Chang´e, a goddess living on the moon.

But companies too can get innovative with names. Geely, a car manufacturer, derived its name from the Chinese word "auspicious" (Jílì). And as regards foreign companies, some have adopted local customs and chosen a translation with an added value. Their aim is to strengthen branding with a subtle but direct message to prospective customers. For instance, Carrefour, a French multinational retailer, uses characters that literally mean "a family’s joy and happiness" in Chinese. And Nike’s Chinese name encourages people to "overcome obstacles".

But for more contemporary creativity, analysis of online society offers a goldmine of opportunity for anyone wishing to have a better grasp of China and its consumer thinking. Chinese netizens are trend setters and the language and terms they use has become widely popular all around the country. Full of wit and humor, net-speak creates strong bonds among those using it. Its melodious play of words can be magical: BMW has been twisted to mean "a prince charming"  (BáiMa WángZi,) and iPhone has a hidden message: "I love you like crazy" (ài feng). This creativity inspired a company that named its cigarettes "520" with the underlying meaning "I love you".

Everyday people in the street (including Chinese living abroad) also have adopted China’s net-speak. Local media considers this underground culture an effective tool to increase audience and has taken to using it. Likewise, companies eager to reach potential customers (for instance via their advertising slogans) should take the opportunity to adopt it too.

Another aspect of local culture that should interest marketers and communicators are the offbeat profiles that multiply on the web, the so-called modern-day tribes, which depict different components of society with various lifestyles, characteristics and, of course, consumer patterns. Some examples illustrate how China is evolving between traditions and modernity and within these are hints about how to reach different segments of society.  

The tribes:

The pragmatic Rush Rush tribe is always on the run for their career since, according to the words of Confucius, "one must be settled at the age of 30".

The poetic Moonlight tribe represents individualistic and impulsive consumers with a strong focus on entertainment; often notorious for using up their paycheck quickly.

Mortgage slaves allocate most of their income for their home (this neologism has been inspired by a famous TV series called Dwelling Narrowness and has been included in the official Chinese dictionary).

The Flea tribe is a puzzle for HR managers. These are the people who are quick to change jobs for a minor wage increase. The tribe is not as famous, but the type of person is plentiful. In France we also have a word for them, we call them "mercenaires" (in English "mercenaries" or maybe "money motivated people", because they only look for their own interest. HR Experts in France readily use the word mercenary. But In China, they are Fleas because of word play: The flea that jumps for joy and the flea that jumps on a higher salary.

The Low-carbon footprint tribe expresses concern over environmental quality and food safety, which have both become key issues in China over the past few years. The tribe may not yet be very famous but it makes sense in the current Chinese context. Environmental issues and food security are high on the agenda and the issues are important now and will be for years to come.

TUHAO are basically the tasteless nouveaux riche, who enjoy standing out and like to buy luxury items

NUHANZI or the manly-woman, is a testament to how relations between men and women (including after marriage) is evolving.

The TUHAO, the NUHANZI, the Moonlight tribe (if you ask some Chinese people they might well tell you that they belong to this one) and the Mortgage slaves are particularly famous in China (there is a sense of pride to belong to the Mortgage slaves, because buying a home is a must).

In my book, CHINA ONLINE, I describe other famous tribes, for instance the "returnees from overseas", the "affordable man" (this type of man is popular because he is not so overly macho), and the Ants (this tribe was created by Chinese sociologists a very long time ago, and I would say that the Chinese dream would not be possible without their hard work).

In my mind, the most representative tribe in China right now (and in the actionable future) is the Rush Rush tribe. The name is not very famous but if you think about the description, you will see these people represent a large urban segment of the population.  They mainly rush after three things:

To "become rich" (xiang bào fù)

To "become famous" (xiang chéngmíng)

To "live in a house" (xiang zhùfáng)

In 2014, Coca Cola hijacked some of these net-speak terms as part of its popular campaign to replace the product’s standard labels with names. You can see in the picture from this report that the company uses a reference to the Moonlight tribe (first from left in the picture) as part of its successful marketing campaign in China. There are plenty of other ways for brands to use both the terms and tribes to speak to China’s consumers in an authentic way that resonates with daily life and experience.

The phenomenal rise of China to global prominence in recent years has been impossible to ignore. Flourishing net-speak shows how a new generation builds its own model of society in ways that are likely to have varied and profound impact on the world as a whole. Look to China’s net-speak to find the new trendsetters.

Véronique Michel is a multilingual conference speaker and has published two books in France on Chinese communication. Her latest book, CHINA ONLINE, just published in the US in English. She can be reached at

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