What to Keep in Mind when Localizing for China

Tips for Translators and Language Professionals Working From Home
November 4, 2020

China has the world’s largest population with almost 1.4 billion people and the world’s fastest growing economy. China is technologically savvy with approximately 800 million internet users–a majority of whom connect online through their smartphone. To localize for China opens up your content to the largest audience in the world and the potential to greatly expand your customer base and market reach into the Middle Kingdom (the Chinese name for China 中国 zhōngguó).

However, localizing for China can be tricky unless you have some in-depth knowledge about the language, culture, and the local social media/internet platforms. In this blog, we will go over some key considerations to keep in mind when localizing for China.

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photo by Denny Ryanto

Language: Different Chinese Dialects

China is a geographically vast and diverse country: it is approximately 9.8 million square kilometers (3.7 million square miles), which is just 2% shy of the total geographic size of the U.S. including Hawaii, Alaska, and the District of Columbia. What makes China linguistically complex is that one can travel a few miles out from one city to another and find that the people there speak a completely different dialect of Chinese than the first city.

Chinese generally refers to Chinese Mandarin (普通话 pǔtōnghuà), which has the largest number of speakers (approximately 1 billion) and is the official state language used in education, news, and localization. Chinese Mandarin is written in Simplified Chinese characters, as opposed to Traditional Chinese characters (which we cover in detail here).

In southern China—in places like Hong Kong, and Macau—Cantonese (廣東話 guǎngdōng huà) is primarily spoken and is mutually unintelligible from Chinese Mandarin. In Hong Kong and Macau, Traditional Chinese characters are used as the main writing system. There are many other dialects used in China such as Sichuanese (四川话) in south-central China, Min (閩语) in south-east coastal China, and Wu (吳语) in east coastal China that are mutually unintelligible and are spoken by millions of Chinese people.

If one is looking to localize their content for the general population of China, Chinese Mandarin and Simplified Chinese is recommended. For voice-over, the northern Chinese accent—such as the one used in the capital of Beijing—is considered standard. However, if a company wants to focus on a specific area—let’s say Hong Kong—then they should adapt their localization strategy to that region, in this case using Cantonese and Traditional Chinese.

photo by Hanson Lu

Cultural and Internet Considerations

In addition to different dialects of Chinese, each region of China has their own unique cultural trends, e.g. Chongqing is known for its spicy food and the home for many promising Chinese hip-hop artists. If budget allows, it may be helpful to consider localizing content specifically for each region so that it resonates with the local audience. This might mean incorporating the use of local dialects as well as researching famous local landmarks or cultural trends to make your content more appealing.

To connect to the Chinese audience at large, it’s helpful to research major cultural trends and sensibilities. In China, foreign luxury brands are incredibly popular: e.g. Chinese customers are known to form long lines to purchase the latest Chanel or Louis Vuitton product. Branding is incredibly important and portraying strong brand credibility is imperative when localizing for a Chinese audience.

One brand case study is the vacation rental service Airbnb. In 2017, Airbnb decided on the Chinese name 爱彼迎 (Ài bǐ yíng), which can be translated to “welcome each other with love.” However, many Chinese netizens voiced their dislike and confusion over the name, which can be interpreted as “Love Biying” (Ai meaning love and Biying being someone’s name) or can also be interpreted as having sexual connotations. However, Airbnb overcame this rocky beginning by localizing their payment system to Chinese platforms Alipay and WeChat. They also focused on providing customers with “experiences,” i.e. ways for people using the service to explore and travel the city they’re visiting, such as having a guide show them the local eats of Beijing.

There is also the Great Firewall of China. The firewall blocks sites like Facebook, Google, Youtube, and a number of other platforms. What that means is that companies should become familiar with popular Chinese platforms like WeChat, Douyin (known as TikTok in the U.S.), and Weibo and optimize their content for these platforms. Many Chinese customers watch content from their mobile devices on these sites, so it’s important that companies localize with this in mind.

photo by Fred Moon


China is a vast country that has many different languages. When localizing for the general population standard Chinese Mandarin and Simplified Chinese should be used. However, given China’s size and diverse regional cultures, it may be helpful to localize your content based on the specific regions you’d like to target and for the language of that area.

In addition to languages, one should consider Chinese cultural trends and how the Chinese use the internet. Many Chinese customers use WeChat and other local Chinese apps when purchasing and engaging with content.

Whenever localizing for a country, it’s important to respect the local culture and ways of doing business. If you do that, you’re already one step closer to succeeding in reaching a global audience.

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