By Steve Kelman

Blog archive

The Happy Buddha professor drives the Treasure Horse

I am in China to give several lectures, but there’s a very cool bonus for me this time: some personal Chinese language lessons at one of the universities I am visiting.

I have been accumulating a list of the names used in China for various Western brands. The names of these brands are invariably transformed into Chinese characters that more or less sound like the Western name. Occasionally, these characters are just sort of nonsense sounds that have no real meaning, but often, clever Chinese marketing people come up with sounds that both sound like the Western name for the product but also express some actual message about the product itself.
 
Probably the first of these clever renderings occurred perhaps a hundred years ago, involving one of the most iconic Western brand names in China. I refer of course to Harvard University, the Louis Vuitton of higher education. Somebody at Harvard -- Harvard probably didn't have marketing people in those days -- came up with the characters Ha Fuo to render Harvard into Chinese. These characters mean "Happy Buddha" --  perhaps not a perfect expression of the Harvard message, but nonetheless an interesting one.
 
My personal favorite rendering into Chinese is BMW. It is "Bao Ma," which when you pronounce it in Chinese actually sounds very close to "Beamer," a common English nickname for the brand.  But the coolest thing is what it means -- Treasure Horse.

I think my second favorite is Coca Cola -- "Ke Kao Ke Le," which means "delicious happy."  My third favorite -- but a lot of Chinese really like this one, because the words are apparently very poetic -- is "Ben Chi" for Mercedes Benz (generally shortened in most countries outside the US to "Benz" rather than, as we do, to "Mercedes"), which means "drive freely."
 
In the next category are translations that either use one key word mixed with nonsense words, or that have meaningful words but sacrifice the sound-alike feature. So Starbucks in Chinese is "Xing Ba Ke"  --  "xing" means "star," but the other two syllables don't mean anything. Procter and Gamble is "Bao Jie."  That means "treasure clean." If it sounds like “Procter and Gamble” to a Chinese person, it’s a more distant match than some other examples.
 
Finally, there are some brands, like the famous "Mai Dong Lao" for McDonald's or "Oh Lei Ah" for L'Oreal which, to my understanding, have no real meaning at all in Chinese, just sounds.

I think I've got this all correct, but it wouldn't surprise me if I've made a mistake or two in the above, based on questions I've asked Chinese people about these renderings, so Chinese speakers reading the blog feel free to correct -- or to add any favorites. There are lots of Western brands in China, and they all have Chinese versions, so there are doubtless rich pickings. But these renderings also give a good feel for the Western brand mania that is a noticeable part of the crazy quilt of contradictions that is China today.

Posted on Jul 21, 2011 at 12:09 PM


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