The Chinese challenge: localising in China


Friday April 20, 2018 - Posted by:

With the second largest economy worldwide, China is most certainly a force to be reckoned with. Expected to overtake the US in years to come, it’s no wonder more and more companies want to expand to tap into this prospering market.

However, to grow your business in China, you need to understand the importance of localisation. To do this, you need at least a basic grasp of what the cultural and linguistic differences of such a vast country entail.

Understanding the Nuances of the Chinese Language

Spoken Chinese

Though numbers vary, it’s a well-known fact that Chinese is the most widely spoken language globally. Often used as an umbrella term for many different dialects, Chinese is a tonal language, and many dialects have differing phonology so aren’t mutually intelligible. However, when referring to ‘Chinese’ most people commonly refer to Mandarin or Putonghua (literally the ‘common language’ 普通话), of which roughly 1 billion speak in both Mainland China, Taiwan, and Singapore.

Cantonese is the second most commonly spoken variety of the Chinese language, with its own cultural identity and dialects. It is widely spoken in the Guangdong province, eastern Guangxi, as well as in Hong Kong and Macau.

Written Chinese

The most important thing to consider when localising your campaign is whether to use Traditional or Simplified Chinese. The main differences are indicated by their names; Traditional Chinese uses the original characters that have evolved over thousands of years. Simplified Chinese was introduced in the 1950s and uses modernised versions of these characters, making them easier to memorise and write. It’s important to understand which is relevant to your chosen market before taking your translation further. When done wrong, you risk alienating or even offending your target audience.


Territory Written Language Spoken Language
Mainland China Simplified Chinese Mandarin
Singapore Simplified Chinese Mandarin
Taiwan Traditional Chinese Mandarin
Hong Kong Traditional Chinese Cantonese


Furthermore, there’s also a myriad of terms and phrases in Simplified and Traditional Chinese respectively that differ in meaning and don’t translate as you’d expect them to. For example, the word tǔdòu 土豆 means peanut in Taiwan, but translates as potato in mainland China.

As the table below shows, depending on the area you’re targeting, there’s even more to consider within the realms of Traditional and Simplified Chinese.

Examples of Lexical Differences Between Simplified Chinese, and Traditional Chinese in Taiwan and Hong Kong:


English Traditional Chinese (Hong Kong) Traditional Chinese (Taiwan) Simplified Chinese
Hotel 酒店 飯店 酒店
Handbag 手袋 包包 手提包
Software 軟件 軟體 软件


China’s leading search engine is Baidu, which in 2017 had over 665 million active mobile search users, and a 76.05% share of China’s search market.

Online Marketing in China

With social media playing such a huge role in digital marketing and e-commerce, it’s important to keep the following popular Chinese social media platforms on your radar:

  • WeChat
  • QQ
  • Sina Weibo

Starbucks is an example of a company that used social media marketing to its advantage, creating a Valentine’s gifting scheme last year via WeChat. Now, having teamed up with WeChat pay, digital payments make up 29% of Starbucks purchases.

When launching in China one of the first things to do is pick your brand name. Chinese characters have many layers of meaning, so a direct and phonetic translation is very unlikely to create a successful brand. Even brands which have tried to take this into account can come unstuck. Last year, in a bid to secure its place in the Chinese market, Airbnb made the bold decision to localise their China branding. They did this by changing their name to ‘Aibiying’ 爱彼迎, which translates to ‘welcome each other with love’. However, the new name received a cold reception. Mocked for being clunky, awkward and unnatural, web-users were quick to offer up alternatives.

The lessons companies hoping to rebrand for the Chinese market should take away from this venture are to never underestimate the importance of thorough market research in localisation, and to consider whether the message conveyed through the new name works and won’t be misinterpreted in the target language. Though Airbnb no doubt benefitted from the publicity of this oversight, the embarrassment could have been avoided.

Cracking the Chinese Market

With the sheer number of Chinese speakers around the world and online, you want to be sure you’re getting their attention for the right reasons.

Having worked in China for over ten years, Locaria understands the subtle linguistic and cultural differences and will ensure your content flows seamlessly between different languages and audiences.

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