Evergrande, Ever Given: Why are so many Chinese-language brands prefixed “Ever”?

Not-so-happily ever after.
Not-so-happily ever after.
Image: Aly Song/Reuters
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It hasn’t been the best of years for entities with names that start with “Ever.”

In March, the container ship Ever Given, operated by the Taiwanese company Evergreen Marine, got stuck in the Suez Canal for six days. A few months later, the Ever Ace—newly crowned the world’s largest container ship, and also an Evergreen vessel—made her maiden voyage, but her debut came in the midst of supply chain snarls that particularly affected, and were perhaps even being caused by, big ships.  In September, the Chinese real estate developer Evergrande teetered on the brink of collapse, struggling to make payments to its creditors. Among those creditors is Zhōngguó Guāngdà Yínháng—or, as it is commonly known in China, the Everbright Bank.

And these were only the “Evers” that became prominent in 2021. Xin Sun, a senior lecturer at King’s College London, has always paid particular attention to the names he sees around him, and he has noticed how companies bearing the “Ever” prefix, either in their Chinese or English names, are common across China, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. He can rattle off examples: the Hang Seng stock index in Hong Kong, in which the Chinese word “Hang” means “ever” or “forever,” say, or Hang Lung properties, a Hong Kong real estate developer.

It’s a short word, “ever”: just four letters in English, or a single character in Chinese. But with that word, Sun said, “you can tell a very big story about how the Chinese political and cultural systems have shifted from the imperial era to today.”

How Chinese companies get their English names

It’s easy to assume, given the unfamiliar ring of names like “Evergrande” or “Everbright,” that they’re direct translations from Chinese. But that isn’t always the case, said Adam Knight, the co-founder of Tong Digital, a London-based marketing consultancy that works extensively with companies in China.

Chinese companies port their names over into English in one of four ways, Knight said. In the simplest method, a Chinese name will be rendered directly into English: Huawei, for instance. Others will transliterate with small changes; Knight pointed out that the beer known to Western diners as Tsingtao is technically “Qīngdǎo” in the original. A third way is direct translation. “So Great Wall Wine, China’s most famous vineyard, has a Chinese name that means ‘Great Wall’ as well,” Knight said.

The final method involves an entirely new English name altogether, one that has no relation to the original Chinese brand, and is often just English words mashed together, Knight said. “Tencent is an example of that,” he pointed out. The words “ten” and “cent” sound like the Chinese words “teng” and “xun,” denoting a rapid spread of information, but the meaning of the English words together reflects nothing of the underlying Chinese homophones.

The companies and brands that begin their names with “Ever” follow a number of these models. The bank Everbright, for instance, has a Chinese name that connotes, roughly, a large brightness: no reference to longevity at all. Evergrande’s Chinese name does imply a kind of constant grandeur; similarly, the names of Evergreen and Ever Given have been translated exactly from their Chinese. The Hang Seng Index, though, offers no special English name at all; it’s Hang Seng through and through.

Why the prefix “Ever” is popular in China

The immediate appeal of “Ever” is evident in a culture like China’s, said Catherine Xiang, the director of the London School of Economics’ Confucius Institute for Business London. “It’s a culture that prizes longevity and long life. You always want something to be there forever,” Xiang said. The city of Xi’an, one of Imperial China’s most important cities, “once had a name that meant the ‘long peace,'” she said. “And there’s a perennial plant that we sometimes called the ‘sacred lily,’ but that in its original name and its translation into English is referred to as the ‘evergreen.’ That plant, and its name, became very popular. I think it’s part of the reason why, when we think of ‘eternity,’ we use the word ‘ever.'”

The practice of giving businesses and brands bluntly auspicious names—using words like “luck” or “prosperity” or “longevity”—derives from Feng Shui, said Sun. “Even today, when friends of mine start businesses in China, they consult a Feng Shui master on what to name them,” he said. “Because according to Feng Shui, if you have a good name, you can transform your fortunes.”

These beliefs had been a constant in China through its imperial ages, but after the 1911 revolution ended the monarchy, successive governments tried to dispel what they saw as superstition, Sun said. The Communist Party did the same. “Look at the names of companies or entities in the early part of Mao’s era,” Sun said. “You’ll see a lot of ‘Liberation’ or ‘East Wind’ or ‘Renewal.'” The revolutions created a rupture in China and Taiwan; in British-ruled Hong Kong, though, Feng Shui-inspired names continued to proliferate through the 20th century.

Evergrande, Ever Given, and the other Evers

After Mao’s death, China changed again, undergoing a period of reforms that nudged the economy closer to capitalism. As the reforms accelerated in the late 1980s and 1990s, Sun said, people felt “a vaccuum in their beliefs. They knew communism was bankrupt, but they didn’t have any other new modernity of their own to adopt.” In that condition, “many private entrepreneurs and even the bosses of state-owned companies went back to Feng Shui masters when they named their businesses,” Sun said. “And of course, to hope and signal that your company will last forever makes sense, because during the time of full-blown Communism, entrepreneurs were squeezed so much by the regime that it was very rare for any private company to last longer than three generations.”

Taiwan went through market reforms and a democratic transition much earlier, Sun pointed out; in his thinking, the vaccuum of belief never opened as widely as it did in China. So although the Taiwanese conglomerate Evergreen and its various ships do use the prefix, he said, “in general you’ll see fewer company names that come from Feng Shui.”

The irony that at least a couple of brand names beginning with “Ever”—brand names denoting an unending existence—nearly came a cropper this year, in the Suez or in China’s real estate sector, is not lost on anyone. “In fact,” said Adam Knight, “I think it’ll be interesting to see if the prefix now gets slightly tainted by all that has happened, and if other companies ever use it as willingly again.”