John Smith is a Beijinger
Prior to the early stirrings of the pre-Open Door era, name cards were not presented by the Chinese side in business meetings and negotiations. We western visitors would be told the surname and organization name only, of the senior one or two people on the Chinese side of the table, and usually not the names of the other people on their side, who seemed to be primarily there as note-takers and observers.
The custom of the day was not due to a lack of paper for printing name cards, or any intended discourtesy, but because the prevailing ideology at the time saw doing business, and especially foreign trade business, as a necessary evil rather than an activity to be enthusiastically embraced.
The process of obtaining an invitation to visit the Canton Trade Fair – virtually the only access point in China twice each year for foreign business – and then using that invitation to obtain a visa, visit the Fair and try to obtain desired meetings, was complex and opaque. There was a sense of “Don’t call us ; we’ll call you.” pervading China’s foreign trade at the time.
This all changed dramatically and rapidly after 1979. and reflects a degree and speed of change which younger Chinese people today find hard to imagine.
Looking on the bright side, there was a virtue of simplicity in those early days. Foreign business visitors would only have to remember their counterpart’s Chinese surname: Huang, Li, Zhang, Song etc., generally preceded by the simple and universal form. of address at the time: “Comrade”.
Later, as name cards became popular in China, foreigners had to learn to decipher the standard system of romanizing Chinese words, hanyu pinyin. This seemed to have the letters “q”, “x” and “z” in unexpected places and unfamiliar, hard-to-pronounce combinations. To those without the benefit of formal study of it, hanyu pinyin seemed like an alphabetic train wreck.
That earlier era seems like a long, long time ago now, and in the intervening 30-plus years the matter of names and appropriate terms of address just seems to keep on changing.
From the onset of name cards becoming an accepted part of business etiquette early in the Open Door era, both foreigners and Chinese tried to be helpful to each other.
Foreigners acquired Chinese names which were printed on the reverse of their name cards. And gradually, some Chinese began selectively adopting Western given names (e.g. William, Mary, ) which were sometimes printed on the reverse of their cards in front of their Chinese surname.
Apart from individual names, the business of corporate naming and branding in Chinese, English and other languages became a big business, and rightfully so, given its importance.
A few years ago in Beijing I met an enterprising taxi driver who had taken the Westernization of his name to a new level.
We were stuck in traffic, and he was a very talkative fellow.
The conversation followed a well-worn path, in Chinese:
“Your Chinese is very good.”
“How long have you lived in China?”
“Wow. Always in Beijing?”
No, Hong Kong, but I visit Beijing very frequently.
“If you need a car for trips to the Great Wall or the countryside, you can always call me.”
“Here is my card.”
His card, very nicely printed in color on thick laminated paper stock, identified him as “ John Smith” on the English side, with his real Chinese name on the reverse.
I asked him how a Chinese taxi driver in Beijing got a name like John Smith.
He said he wanted a name which was easy for foreign customers to remember, so he asked his brother, an English teacher, for a suggestion. His brother recommended “John Smith.”
I said “Thank you, John” when we reached my destination, and went on my way.