Shanghai Businesses Required to Have Chinese Signs

July 18, 2007 - by Adam Feeney

Shanghai city officials recently required all Shanghai businesses with foreign-language-only signs to add Chinese characters. The ostensible reason is that foreign-language-only signs violate the country's language law and obstruct access to Chinese residents. However, I believe this policy is misguided for a number of reasons.

The claim that a foreign-language-only name is a major impediment to Chinese-only speakers is dubious. Even if potential customers cannot say the name, they can refer to it in other ways, for example "that pizza place on the corner of Taicang Lu and Huangpi Nan Lu." As for access by taxi, unless you are going to the Shanghai Museum or some other such well-known landmark, names are useless. Whether you say City Diner or a Chinese name, you're going to have to tell the driver "intersection of Nanjing Xi Lu and Tongren Lu" to get where you want to go.

Moreover, in a free market, businesses should be allowed to name themselves whatever they want to. Choosing a name is a key business decision. The entrepreneurs who are taking the risk should thus be given the autonomy to make the decision. If customers cannot find the business, or are put off because of a foreign-language name, it is the business that is hurt. If businesses are hurt enough, they will change their tact.

Finally, foreign-language-named businesses add to the cosmopolitan air of a city. As one strolls through the streets of New York, Los Angeles or Chicago, one will see many Spanish, Chinese, Korean, Japanese or other foreign-language-named businesses without English translations. One sees these businesses and feels the city offers an authentic multiculturalism. Because Shanghai is unique in Mainland China as an international and cosmopolitan city, this diversity should be celebrated, not hindered.

You can read the AP article about the policy here.

8 Comment

  • 1. blogger  |  July 19, 2007, 1:50 pm

    are you kidding me? it's just a policy to have chinese characters on your business sign, what's so bad about that.

  • 2.CHICAGO PIZZA  |  July 19, 2007, 4:59 pm

    Just two questions to start. Where are you from? and Is this the first time that you been in a non-english speaking country?

  • 3.Bloggette  |  July 19, 2007, 5:19 pm

    Why compare only to New York, Chicago, and L.A.? Shanghai is not the United States...

  • 4.Gandalf  |  July 19, 2007, 5:29 pm

    Is and Interesting blawg but I think you need to think more about it, as a business man I would like to have my business name in Chinese characters too, because if you ask any of the trademark experts or marketing or publicity experts in China they will tell you that brands just in English doesn¡¯t live to much in the Chinese world. So even if is mandatory to have the name in Chinese characters, and not even that it has to have a nice meaning. So don¡¯t advise anyway even if it wasn¡¯t mandatory just to have their bran in English because the ones that spend money here are the Chinese and they read the Chinese characters first. Maybe I¡¯m wrong but just look witch is the foreign population in Shanghai and how many local live there, and then you will see than brands doesn¡¯t come here to sell us Coca-Cola, they come here to sell their bran to the Chinese population, and that is the real market.

  • 5. yanzhi  |  July 20, 2007, 7:07 pm

    Ms Yue, our resident"average" Chinese woman consultant, doesn't do Pinyin and doesn't read English...She is a 46 year-old child of the revolution and says xinbake instead of Starbucks ....The taxi drivers haven't a clue where Starbucks is on this side of Guangzhou....

    You sound awfully ethnocentric for a guy who brags about how long he has been here....

  • 6. Michael D  |  July 23, 2007, 2:46 pm

    Does the ruling extend to French and Italian names,too? What's to become of Hermes and Gucci?

  • 7. Ben Ross  |  July 23, 2007, 10:14 pm

    On a personal level, I really like this rule. I think the English is a bit overkill in China, and often over used as a fashion statement more than as a means to help foreigners. It gives off the vibe that English is somehow hip and cool, while Chinese characters somehow are not. This is not a reason to ban English-only signs, but just a personal feeling I have. On a more practical level, China has an official language policy, that being pu tong hua. As a matter of unifying the country, and more importantly preventing general confusion, the government wants to keep the one country one language policy intact, and I think as a whole this is good for the country, and this is one place where the US can learn from China. (Many Americans do not realize we have no official language). I would have a problem with the government banning foreign language signs, but as for requiring Chinese, I'm all for it. When in Chinese, speak (or read) as the Chinese do.

  • 8.Adam Feeney (Admin)  |  July 24, 2007, 11:29 am

    I¡¯m from the US, and I have lived in China for the better part of five years. I can speak Mandarin and read Chinese characters. I lived in Dalian for 2 1/2 years, where, outside of a few five star hotels, attempting to order food or buy something in English will get you nothing but confused looks. That was what I expected when I came to China, and I liked it. I actually find it strange in Shanghai when servers speak to me in English. So, I¡¯m not saying that China should have to bend over backwards, or do anything for that matter, to make life easier for non-Chinese speakers. But, the issue here isn¡¯t making life easier for foreigners; the issue is commercial freedom for private businesses. I never said that anything should be required to be written in a non-Chinese language, I simply said that business owners should be allowed to do so if they so choose.

    Yes, I am very much aware that many Chinese people can¡¯t read pinyin or foreign languages. That¡¯s why most businesses already put Chinese characters on their signs. It¡¯s a good business decision. Personally, if I had a business in Shanghai, I would have its name in Chinese characters on the sign. I believe that that would be a good business decision. But it would be MY business decision. In a free market, which is what Shanghai is ostensibly aspiring towards, it is not the government¡¯s job to tell businesses what are and are not good business decisions. A business is not a public service; it is a private money-making venture. The government should not REQUIRE a business to make themselves easy to find, or have names that are understandable to everyone. These are businesses, not street signs or subway stops, after all. If the owner wants to write the name on the sign in French, Gaelic, or Klingon, or if he or she doesn¡¯t want to have a name at all on his or her sign, that is the owner¡¯s prerogative.

    Moreover, in my own country, I would vehemently oppose any regulation that required all businesses to have English on their signs. And, were I to support such a policy, I would be called ¡°ethnocentric.¡± Why should a government tell a business they can¡¯t just call their Mexican restaurant ¡°La Casa¡±, or make a Korean grocery store print their name in a non-Korean language if the business doesn¡¯t want to? Isn¡¯t some of the charm lost when a French wine and cheese shop is forced to translate its name? So why am I all of the sudden ¡°ethnocentric¡± when I say that people should be able to express themselves in languages that are not the national language when the nation in question happens to be China? Also, this is not just about English, as some respondents seem to be assuming. The regulation bans all foreign languages, and I see many businesses in Shanghai with Japanese-only signs, for example.

    If Shanghai wants to be a cosmopolitan world city, it needs to make room for people who decide to express themselves in foreign languages, even when the expression doesn¡¯t come packaged with their own. Don¡¯t worry, Chinese characters aren¡¯t going to die out because the sign for the wine shop ¡°Vin¡± doesn¡¯t also say "άÄØ."

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