Imagine you work at a high-powered big tech firm in China. You're eager to get promoted, and you take your work seriously. But there's a catch: The colleague sitting to your left calls himself "Yogurt," the manager you report to wants to be referred to as "Genghis Khan," and everyone knows the founder of your company as "Feng Qingyang," a fictional master swordsman from one of China's best kung fu novels.
This is not an edgy startup; it's Alibaba, the Chinese ecommerce titan.
At Alibaba, every employee has a nickname for internal communications. These aliases, called huaming (花名) in Chinese, are unique identifiers that employees at a growing number of major tech companies in China give themselves when they start. It's not just whimsical — it's required. Alibaba promotes nicknames as a tool to break down innate hierarchies and create a more relaxed corporate culture.
Other Chinese tech companies are making similar attempts to flatten office hierarchies. In September 2020, NetEase, a company specializing in gaming and music streaming, decided that every employee needed an alias. Tencent, mimicking workplaces in the West, has always required employees to choose an English first name for internal communications. Tencent's founder and CEO, Ma Huateng, is widely known as Pony Ma. In these companies' internal systems, aliases display alongside employees' real names, so it's an individual choice of which name to use.
Ecommerce heavyweight Pinduoduo has taken the practice to a new extreme: Employees are not even allowed to know each other's real names in work communications, according to Chinese tech news outlet LatePost.
There's a darker interpretation of the corporate motives at play. Observers suspect the aliases are designed to prevent employees from developing real-life friendships and from organizing together. "This is no different from the Foxconn factories in the past," Pun Ngai, a sociology professor at the University of Hong Kong, told LatePost. "At Foxconn, everyone is given an employee ID when they are hired. The day shift workers don't talk to the night shift workers. If anything goes wrong, the employee has to face it alone."
The practice started with Alibaba in 2003 when the company launched Taobao, now a massive ecommerce platform. The complicated evolution of its experience is instructive. An early employee suggested everyone adopt aliases to interact with customers and increase online engagement; founder Jack Ma agreed and chose Feng Qingyang (风清扬), a fictional master swordsman, for himself. All early employees, many of them now in the Alibaba C-suite, also adopted fictional character names.
It's since become a company tradition. According to a book by Zhao Xianchao, a former journalist and now himself an Alibaba employee, about 160,000 aliases had been chosen within the company by 2018.
Because every name has to be unique, literary references soon ran out, and the names have become weirder and more random. There are food names (Soymilk, Yogurt, Fried Eggs), historical figures (Kublai, Li Bai, Du Fu), silly titles (Your Majesty, Old Dog) and many expressions that aren't even names (people have named themselves One Day, Two Days, … all the way through Ten Days).
Last year, Alibaba finally started letting new employees use aliases discarded by ex-employees. Finding the right nickname had become a chore for new hires, who complained they spent hours coming up with an original one.
Alibaba justified all the trouble with its desire to eliminate hierarchy. It's considered rude in China to refer to one's teacher, older relatives or manager by a first name. Most employees default to phrases that combine a person's last name and their title, something like "Boss Ma." When these names are repeated enough, it enforces a rigid system and discourages difficult conversations.
Alibaba has taken other steps to level the playing field. Its internal communications system, DingTalk, used to show everyone's "job levels" via an internal quantified ranking system. It stopped displaying these levels in August.
The aliases give Alibaba a good corporate culture story to tell the public, but its effect is limited.
"When it comes to [Jack Ma], we usually call him Teacher Ma. Few would call him Feng Qingyang," Zhang, an Alibaba employee, told Protocol. Teacher Ma is another common nickname for Jack Ma, partly because of his earlier career as an English teacher. (Zhang asked Protocol to withhold her first name to avoid upsetting her employer.)
When Zhang joined Alibaba, she put a lot of thought into finding an alias. She eventually picked an expression that signals personal growth and sounded similar to a historical figure's name.
But most people still call Zhang by her real name. "My real name is quite catchy, so people just refer to me by that, and it feels more intimate too," she said. "But I use my aliases in all work documents and email sign-offs."
"To be honest," Zhang added, "the Chinese tradition of seniority and the reverence that comes with it will always exist. It won't be changed by one or two corporate culture innovations."