“Is This Your Name Card, or Family Tree?”
Name cards have been an interesting reflection of the changing times in China since I moved here in the mid-1970s.
When I first visited the Chinese mainland, there were no name cards, which created many guessing games about who was who on the other side of the conference table. The absence of name cards was not just due to a shortage of paper; it was a reflection of what information you as a visitor were allowed access to.
Full names and titles weren’t considered a high priority at the time. There wasn’t much going on in those days anyway, at least not in the world of business.
One of China’s distinguishing factors among the family of nations is the inverse relationship between her huge population and the tiny number of common Chinese surnames. About 100 common surnames in total, shared among nearly 1.5 billion people. That’s a whole lot of sharing.
So many people, so few names. And in the old days, only one title: ‘Comrade’. In the absence of name cards way back then, business meetings could conceivably have begun like this:
After reform. and opening, name cards became common among executives and officials, often with Chinese characters on one side and a mixture of English and pinyin romanized spelling on the other. From simple black and white affairs they evolved to 4-color printing with logos, brand names, and sometimes fancy printing effects like embossing.
Later, really really important people (RRIPs) seized upon an inflationary trend in their titles and affiliations. To impress friends and associates, they had business cards produced which had multiple folding pages like ancient Chinese books, with type fonts so small you needed a microscope to read them. The real purpose was not for you to read them anyway, just to be impressed by the number, and the scope, of titles and affiliations.
Less common but not unknown was the practice of printing only a Western given name on a Chinese person’s name card, which would be like me having only a Chinese name on mine. How confusing is that? And some of the chosen Western names were odd. I once met a man whose name card said “Green Chen”, and I wondered how in the world he came to choose this name. An early environmentalist, maybe.
On the other hand, some Westerners ended up with strange Chinese names as well, such as the American whose given Chinese name (史大同) sounded like “big bucket of shit” when pronounced in the Cantonese dialect.
Then there was the Beijing taxi driver I wrote about earlier in this series, whose name card said “John Smith” to make it easier for foreign customers to remember him. Very enterprising indeed.
The least welcome practice of all is when mainlanders — often those who have returned from overseas study — reverse the normal order of their Chinese names on their name cards, placing the given name first, and the surname last. This well-intentioned effort at Westernization is not helpful. It sends us poor Westerners into circles of confusion. Chinese names are complicated enough without turning them upside down just when the West was almost familiar with the Chinese style. of naming.
The other day I met a young Chinese gentleman with a very unusual name card.
The fact that he has his passport photo printed in color on his name card is not particularly noteworthy. Nor, really, is the fact that he lists his date of birth (in 1971), marital status (single), and former job title (he was once a government official) next to his photo; or the brief summary of his mission in life.
What struck me as unusual was that on the reverse of the card he lists the names, titles and organizations of his father, mother, brother, sister-in-law, and his nephew (who is a student).
This is novel. Even more striking is the fact that with the exception of his student nephew, the other four relatives listed all have senior titles in the same department of a rather large city in China. The department in which they all work is in the law enforcement field. His mother and father are listed as “retired” senior officials from that department.
So, let’s see. Given the fact that he does not list a current job affiliation for himself on the card, the message would seem to be that he is a resourceful chap from a resourceful family. Got it: with connections like that, who needs a job?
The name card continues its evolution. What’s next, I wonder?