Creating a website for Chinese audiences – Cultural and copy aspects

China is a major economic power with a highly untapped business potential.

A tagline that gets repeated regularly by government departments, businesses and other interested parties. Companies look towards the Far East and see over 1.3 billion Chinese potential customers/users/readers/buyers actively using the Internet as a source of information, to purchase a large range of goods and services and to share that information on those goods and services with their extensive lists of contacts.

But why is it that a potential online market of such magnitude is still being approached with great caution and vigilance by foreign companies? Why are foreign investors slow to take an early advantage on a country with the world’s largest number of Internet users? Is it fear of the unknown? Inability to break the language and culture barriers? Too many restrictions?

In this post, I’d like to raise a few issues for you to consider if you are thinking about approaching this giant that is the Chinese online community.

to walk in the avenue of change

1. Be aware of online registration procedures and filtering restrictions.
Start by registering a Chinese (.cn) domain name and find data hosting that is physically located in China. This is a good idea from an SEO point of view, to make sure that Chinese search engines looking for geographical location are able to find you easily, but also to stress your commitment to conduct legitimate business in China with Chinese nationals and. Registering a .cn name might not be an easy task, and in fact, you need to be very careful of possible scamers. Try finding an accredited company with a reputable history. They might also be able to get you an ICP licence, which is needed for your site to go live. And remember that once your site is up, you will be faced by the GFW (Great Firewall of China), established to filter information that the Chinese Government considers to be unsuitable for the public ( not exclusively pornographic material but any news item, services and products that could be sensitive or contradictory to the Chinese Governments view). So, take advice from your provider from the start.

Another good option is to hire a webmaster that is native to China, usually marketing themselves in freelancing websites. Offer a weekly or monthly rate to register and maintain your site and look after any other aspects of the registration process like calling customer and technical support, and taking care of whatever other localised business you need done.
2. Cultural aspects to consider in your UI design.
Whenever you create a new version of your site in a foreign market, it’s always important to take cultural aspects into consideration to make sure your intended message gets interpreted and displayed appropriately and successfully. This is particularly true in the case of a market like China. It’s easy to become complacent and simply opt for translating your original design (and copy) to Chinese. That will not work. You should not assume that a UI design which has shown to be effective in your country will also work in China (or in any country for that matter). It is very important that you do your research (or use someone with more knowledge in this field to do it for you) and rebuild the different features of your site accordingly to adapt to Chinese cultural practices and standards.

• Chinese typography: the Chinese script is composed of over 40,000 ideographs (although the average person will considered to have an acceptable degree of literacy when capable of reading around 2,000 characters), each of them made up of at least one stroke and a maximum of 60 strokes. Such complexity makes Chinese a much more difficult language to read than most Latin-based scripts.Chinese characters

Chinese characters are blockish and dense and they need to be presented in a font at least 12 px to ensure ease of read. To improve readability, Chinese sites tend to divide the space available into multiple smaller cells or content blocks, so that the length of each line of writing is shorter and easier for the mind to process. Also, in order to improve user experience, Chinese sites tend to increase spacing between lines or use font colours with lower saturation and contrast. It is also important to maintain distributed alignment (text aligned to left and right margins).

• Chinese site layout:
It’s a good idea to visit some of the more popular Chinese websites such as Rayli and Chinaren to get an idea of the preferred layout and distribution. But my advise is to take into consideration that the state of the Chinese internet connection will be improving in the very near future and this will most certainly mean that Chinese users’ browsing behaviour will change. Lots of sites are currently using flash adverts for various reasons, mainly to cash out as much profit as they can, but also because they want to give the impression to be enjoying a booming trade and don’t want to loose face (Mian Zi), a key factor is Chinese collective behaviour.
This doesn’t mean, however, that Chinese users don’t enjoy simplicity and prefer a site overflowing with links and ads. Many are often seen complaining in Baidu and Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Google and Twitter, about the complexity of Chinese sites and the poor user experience they are forced to endure (in fact, many Chinese users apply a nifty little tool called 360 safeguard which allows them to filter and skip adverts).

It’s also very important to think about the range of colours used in your design. Colours do have different significance to visitors from different cultural backgrounds. It’s very easy to convey the wrong meaning by getting the colour choice wrong. Even the tone of the colours is important, as some Asian countries seem to prefer to use pastel cool tones like greens and blues as opposed to the brighter shades commonly used in Western sites.

I personally like to use Lush as a point of reference for successful localised layout and typography and colour localisation.

3. Cultural aspects to consider when copywriting and localising

  • Tone of voice:  Stop and think about your audience from a cultural and generational point of view before you embark on the task of translating (or writing) copy and localising. You need to discuss with your translator what’s the most appropriate tone of voice: If your main customer base is composed of generation X and Y, you need to find a way to get your message across to Chinese younger audiences avoiding certain formalisms that could simply contribute to making the sight sound outdated and unapproachable.Get a native speaker to review the final copy to pick on human errors or more subtle cultural blunders that may not have been picked up by the translator. But if you really want to cause the same emotive reaction you get from other markets from your Chinese audience, you might need to spend some more time and money employing someone who is able to transcreate, not merely translate. For more details on how transcreation works, visit my post:
  • Political and historical subtleties: Apart from the various and obvious restrictions imposed on the type of content broadcast in websites in China, you need to ensure your translator or writer are using the correct type of characters. Taiwan and Hong Kong prefer to use traditional Chinese, a much more complex version of the written language, while China introduced simplified characters in the 50s and 60 in an attempt to increase literacy. Make sure you are addressing Chinese people with simplified characters as using the traditional version could make it not only a lot harder to read for most people, but also completely inappropriate and ultimately a waste of your time and money.
  • Localisation of numerical data (weights and measures, dates, currency, fractions and time are often represented differently), pricing (make sure your prices reflect the local Chinese currency and taxes) and preferred payment methods. The most preferred online payment instrument in China currently is remittance (debit transfer), collection (credit transfer) and collection with acceptance (debit transfer) market. Also, its third party platform is highly competitive with 40 companies offering fairly similar services.
  • Specific legal regulations: You need to be aware of and compliant with the different privacy and antispam laws established by the Chinese government.
  •  Customer support: If you are an Ecommerce site you need to provide localised customer support for each country. Your online and offline support personnel must speak Mandarin, be available at the right hours, and be reached by local or low-cost phone numbers and email communications.

Next post, SEO and marketing the Chinese way.

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10 thoughts on “Creating a website for Chinese audiences – Cultural and copy aspects

  1. Great post Teresa 🙂 Even though I’m a somewhat not-so-native Chinese, I totally agree with your observations. Communication, online/offine, in any language/culture, needs to be audience specific and it’s a real learning process. What works in one place does not guarantee success elsewhere.

    • Thanks Viv, I am always cautious about writing about other cultures and places as I don’t want to fall in the old orientalist trap of creating a divide between them and us or even sounding too condescending. But I’m glad you see the benefits of sharing a few tips about approaching the Chinese digital market. Thanks a lot!

  2. It’s a pity you don’t have a donate button!

    I’d certainly donate to this superb blog! I guess for now i’ll
    settle for book-marking and adding your RSS feed to my Google account.

    I look forward to fresh updates and will talk about this website with my Facebook group.
    Talk soon!

    • Wow Cameron, thank you so much for such an amazing feedback, I’m really humbled! I really appreciate your stopping by, enjoying it and sharing it! I haven’t been able to post for a couple of weeks due to work and study commitments but I’m done with one of those for a while and I’m back! So, you can expect a few more rumblings from me pretty soon!
      Thanks so much once again, Teresa

  3. Hola! I’ve been reading your web site for some
    time now and finally got the courage to go ahead and
    give you a shout out from Humble Texas! Just wanted to tell you keep up the fantastic job!

    • Elvera,

      I’m terribly sorry, I’ve been totally out of it with no time to spare. But I’m really appreciative. Thanks so much for your kind words. Texas!! I’ve just had my daughter travelling around Texas and into Austin and totally loved it! Can’t wait to visit myself now 🙂

  4. Hi Teresa,

    Thanks for such an excellent post on creating a website that caters to the Chinese audience. I am currently building our company’s China website and is stuck on our privacy policy. We have an English one which I’m tempted to translate directly into Chinese, with modifications. But I am not sure whether there are internet privacy laws that I need to be aware of. I don’t suppose you or someone you know could shed a light on this subject? Thank you.

    Linda

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