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Marketing to China: the language information you need

Marketing to China: the language information you need
Home » Blog » Export markets » Marketing to China: the language information you need

In the eyes of many investors, China is the great ‘what if’ of the marketing world. For a long time China was untouchable for foreign investors not for lack of desire but because of an extremely anti-capitalistic cultural outlook. Ruled by a Chinese Communist Party, many of the values and philosophies by which the Chinese exist stem from Confucianism and promote adoration for family and government over commercialism.


This changed in 1979, when the outside world was welcomed into China’s vast industry with Deng Xiaoping’s famous ‘Open Door’ policy. The number of foreign investments spiralled but the same stumbling blocks repeatedly came up. One of the biggest barriers was, and continues to be, language.


China is home to an astounding 1.35 billion people, constituting around 20% of the world’s population. With such an overwhelming amount of people in China it’s no surprise that a wide range of languages and dialects are common throughout the country, but just which languages should be prioritised?

Mandarin or Cantonese?

Categorising Chinese is a tricky subject but in short there are two main variants: Mandarin and Cantonese. Of these Mandarin is the more widely spoken, being the official language of the Republic of China. Cantonese on the other hand is favoured in peripheral countries and provinces including Hong Kong, Guangdong and gambling paradise Macao.

Mandarin, or Putonghua, translates as ‘the common language’. This is indeed a fitting name considering its original purpose. Standard Mandarin was introduced in the twentieth century with the intention of creating a universal language for China and the surrounding territories, based on the Beijing dialect. Although Standard Mandarin is the official language of the People’s Republic of China, Taiwan and Singapore, there are still a multitude of other strands and languages which prevail in many areas.

Within these languages there are different written versions, these are traditional and simplified Chinese. Mainland China uses the simplified version of Chinese which was designed to raise literacy rates by making the language easier to comprehend. This is also the case in Singapore, but areas like Hong Kong and Taiwan still opt for traditional Chinese. Hong Kong uses traditional Chinese, Cantonese style, whilst Taiwan favours Mandarin style.

Do not treat China as one market

One of the biggest mistakes foreign businesses entering the Chinese market make is to treat the entire country as one single market. With over 1.3 billion people the unavoidable truth is that there isn’t a quick fix or single language which will suffice. Instead, business must target certain areas and adapt their language, dialect and approach based on that region.

David Oro, an expert PR consultant who specialises in Southeast Asia, suggests that there are different markets for different areas of China: “It pays to know your market because each province is different. Shanghai is fashion-forward, Beijing more cultured and the centre of activity, while Guangzhou has close ties with highly efficient Hong Kong, making this industrial region very business savvy.”

Whilst it may be tempting to focus on Standard Mandarin in the hope that this is the easiest way to reach the majority of people in China, this is a dangerous path to head down. Cantonese has more native speakers than major European countries like France, Italy or even the United Kingdom, and the same can be said of other Chinese language variants Wu and Min. The markets here are simply too large to ignore.

Tear up the rulebook

It is not simply a case of choosing the correct language – it must also be used effectively to reap the rewards when marketing your product or business. This means deviating from the status quo and appealing to the Chinese market using websites and mediums that they are familiar with.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are all banned in China. Instead of connecting with potential consumers through the usual social media outlets, businesses would be best advised to set up social media accounts for popular, local mediums. Sina Weibo is the Chinese equivalent of Facebook and currently has over 500 million users, whilst Tudou and Youku are close to YouTube in terms of delivery.

There is no simple answer when it comes to choosing the best type of language when marketing to a Chinese audience. Instead the most prudent approach is to closely study the demographic and alter your language, website and communication to fit the region you are trying to appeal to. It can prove tireless at first but ultimately your business will see the fruits of your labour.

After all, as the Chinese saying goes, all things are difficult before they are easy.

If you’d like to chat to Brightlines about how you can reach your global customers through professional translation services please Call 01225 580770 or click here for a quote. We are happy to help, and advice is always free.