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Chinese games of confusion with business cards

By Johnny Erling
Ein Bild von Johnny Erling

Ever since business people from all over the world are drawn to China – in the wake of Beijing’s reform and policy of opening-up – training courses on intercultural behavior to avoid gaffes have been booming. The correct way of handing over business cards is right at the top of the list of etiquette issues at consulting companies. After all, the People’s Republic follows ancient traditions. The only truth to this is that business cards were first used in China more than 2,000 years ago, but modern-day name and business cards and how to present or receive them were copied by the Chinese from Europeans and Japanese. Only since the digitalization of business cards has Beijing once again taken the lead.

Two very specific traditional name cards played a role in global political events 121 years ago. They contributed to the sense of humiliation of the Chinese Empire. At issue was how the German commander-in-chief of the Allied intervention forces that stopped the Boxer Rebellion handled it. Alfred Graf von Waldersee kept the court’s highest-ranking envoys, Li Hongzhang and Prince Qing, waiting for a long time before deigning to receive them, even though both had announced themselves with their business cards in perfect form.

This is how China’s calling cards once looked like. The two name cards of Prince Qing and Li Hongzhang, which they, as emissaries of the imperial court, had presented to the German commander-in-chief Graf von Waldersee days before he finally received them on November 15, 1900. From the estate of Hauptmann von Schönberg.

Even more provocatively, Empress Dowager Cixi’s emissaries had to pay him their respects at Beijing’s imperial garden and lake complex Zhongnanhai (中南海), for that was where Waldersee had set up his headquarters. He lived in the Ziguangge (紫光阁), the more than 200-year-old “purple radiant pavilion”. The buildings next door housed his German entourage.

It was November 15, 1900. “At 3 in the afternoon, we were graced with a historic moment,” wrote Oberstallmeister Fedor von Rauch in his diary: “The chief was expecting the two Chinese dignitaries… They may have found it hard to offer their reverential greeting to the German field marshal in the chambers of their sovereign. The audience lasted about an hour and a half.

Illustration from the turn of the 19th and 20th century: A visitor carries a visiting card and strikes the door gong.

The imperial court had appointed Li Hongzhang “envoy extraordinary and minister plenipotentiary for the purpose of restoring peace between China and foreign powers.” Prince Qing assisted. Waldersee, however, was not willing to meet with them until “after weeks of negotiation, they were comfortable in addressing a written audience request to him,” von Rauch reported. Both mandarins had their visit announced in the traditional Chinese manner and sent him their visiting cards in advance.

In the estate of Captain von Schönberg, I discovered the name cards of Li and Prince Qing. They had written them with three characters, each in black ink from top to bottom, and brushed them on oblong red paper. The cards of other representatives of allied troops from eight countries, be it from the Japanese, Russians, Americans, or French, looked quite different. They were already printed in square formats on thin white paper, just as we know them today. In the UK, the Oscar Friedheim company, founded in 1884, was able to produce up to 100,000 individual cards a day by 1889. Their card cutting and engraving machines came from Germany.

Business cards were traditionally delivered in special wooden boxes.

It was not Europe that learned from China when it comes to handling the modern “Mingpian” (名片) business card, as many China etiquette books want us to believe. It was the other way around: The Chinese copied the European format, the bilingualism of the card, and their printing technique. From the Japanese, they learned how to use it. The Japanese had adopted the characters for the term “mingci” (名刺) from ancient Chinese, but they were the ones to conceive a perfectly formed ritual for them. It begins with holding the flat card between the thumb and index finger of both hands, and then handing it to the other person with a bow.

China was a quick study. In 2018, the Beijing daily called the mass distribution of name cards in the People’s Republic today an important “tool for social contact” (“社会交往的重要工具”). Used for more than 2,000 years in China, nobles from distant principalities or kingdoms who visited higher-ranking rulers would enclose with their gifts and tributes platelets made of bamboo or wood called ye (谒). On them were the names of the bearers, and often details of their rank and their origin. Later dynasties used silk, cloth, and, from the Ming period onwards, paper.

Modern printed cards appeared en masse with the economic boom after the Cultural Revolution in China in 1978. At first, the customers of Beijing’s small-scale printers despaired. They did not know any foreign languages and could not type foreign names without error. Only copying and scanning techniques solved the stubborn problem.

The IT revolution helped China catch up and even pioneer the electronic business card of today. Especially after WeChat emerged in 2011 and the digital business card replaced the printed name card. According to recent data, more than 230 million Chinese used business cards from 2011 to 2021, including more than 50 million only digitally via apps, WeChat, and QR codes since 2017. In metropolises such as Shanghai, Beijing, and Shenzhen, the printed card is dying out.

The digitization of the business card began in 2011. By 2021, more than 50 million Chinese will already be presenting their business cards online using QR codes, apps, and WeChat programs. There is enough advertising for the service, as the picture shows.

Half a century after Waldersee made his brief guest appearance at Zhongnanhai, China’s Communists moved into the former Park of Emperors on June 15, 1949, even before they proclaimed their People’s Republic. Mao Zedong made Zhongnanhai the seat of the party and also lived there privately. The people have since called the heavily guarded area west of the imperial palace the “new forbidden city.”

In its Purple Palace (Ziguange), China’s leadership nowadays sometimes receives illustrious foreign guests. It does not like to be reminded of the imperial pre-inhabitants. Still, even less of the time when a German commander-in-chief resided here and emissaries of the imperial house had to hand in their visiting cards to him. These were not the only things the Germans took with them when they left. They are also said to have taken all kinds of other art treasures.


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