Interestingly, many Chinese Web addresses are number based: 163.com, 18900.com, 7cv.com, 263.com, 5291.com, 3721.com, 126.com, hao123.com, etc. You’re probably thinking that such addresses—mainly made of meaningless numbers—would be hard to remember. True, but not necessarily any harder than addresses based on the 26 letters of the Roman alphabet are for a Chinese person, especially one who doesn’t know English. In many cases, the more universal language of numbers thus provides highly effective mnemonic devices for remembering an address. This is especially true in the Chinese culture, which attributes particular meanings to certain numbers, some positive, some negative. Against all appearances, the series of numbers in these Web addresses hold specific meanings that help Internet users remember them. And they are intentionally selected to associate a positive meaning and image with the site.
The number 4 is one to be avoided. Note that there is not a single 4 in any of the above examples. For good reason: In Chinese it is pronounced almost exactly like the verb “to die” and thus carries a very negative connotation. In contrast, you will see the numbers 6 (luck), 8 (money), 9 (long life), and 10 (family, togetherness) used widely, even excessively.
The problem of remembering foreign-language Web addresses has been around a long time. Paradoxically, so has search-engine technology that can handle ideograms: Beijing-based 3721 Technology Co. Ltd, the pioneering leader in “Chinese Keyword Services,” was founded in 1998.
The concept is simple: facilitate browsing by replacing Roman-alphabet-based Web addresses with easier-to-remember ideograms.
Can you imagine domain names consisting of Chinese characters? That is what China’s Minister of Information proposed on March 1st when the Chinese government announced its reform of the country’s domain name system.
Four “country extensions,” including one for English, have been created:
- ".CN" for domains in English
- "中国" corresponding to what could be translated as ".china"
- "公司" corresponding to ".com" for companies
- "网络" corresponding to ".net"
Far beyond a simple reform to make Chinese users feel more at home on the Web, this initiative could pave the way to another “Internet” entirely in Chinese that is separate from the global Internet. In fact, a number of observers fear that China will eventually set up its own root servers, bypassing the servers of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), the entity responsible for international regulation of the Internet.
The Chinese announcement stands in stark contrast to the timid complaints voiced in Tunis at the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) denouncing US-dominated Internet governance and the under-representation of emerging economies.
The announced reform will certainly make websurfing easier for Chinese users. But more significantly, it is fanning the debate about international Internet governance and the controversial role played by ICANN. It is also reviving worries about control of the Internet in China.