Business is in a Chinese name: An old tradition has spawned an industry, writes Teresa Poole

AT CANTON'S New Century City shopping mall, the 'Likey Dog' shoe shop would have benefited from one of China's newest service industries. In keeping with the conviction in China that there is money to be made in unlikely ways, the Xiu Cai professional naming company would for 600 yuan ( pounds 46) have suggested something more apt for a footwear store. And, for a mere 60 yuan, its computerised team can also devise a propitious name for a new baby.

Operating out of two rooms in a converted hotel, Xiu Cai is typical of the south's new entrepreneurial service companies. It operates in the grey area between state and private enterprise, utilises the spare time of underpaid state employees, and has invented the need for a paid service where none existed.

Xiu Cai was set up four months ago. Five people work full-time in the office, including Qiu Xue, the chairman. Then there are about 30 professors and scholars at local universities for whom creating names for companies and children is a sideline that helps eke out the meagre state wage. The biggest partner, with 60 per cent of the shares, is a fully-fledged state enterprise, the Hua Tian Industrial Company. Such are the distinctions blurred between state and private enterprise these days in China.

Armed with the mandatory black leather three-piece suite in the reception room, and the computer equipment next door, Xiu Cai is carving a business out of the Chinese traditional art of naming - and the opportunities that come with economic reform. Chen Qi Fang, one of the full-time employees, specialises in English names for new joint venture companies. Mr Qiu says Xiu Cai is a 'natural result of the social and economic progress. Now more and more enterprises pay attention to their names. And some want to change their names.' More than 300 customers have employed the firm.

When the client has explained what sort of name is required, the details are forwarded to one of the professors, who earns 20 per cent of the fee. Moonlighting by academics is commonplace because official salaries have not kept pace with the rewards in private industry and joint venture companies.

At Xiu Cai, a panel discussion is held to decide on the three best names to offer the client. Names are checked against an expanding computer bank to avoid duplication. Satisfaction is guaranteed - the customer can insist on more names until it finds one acceptable. 'No one else can compare with this company in terms of so many professors,' said Mr Qiu.

Wei Weiming, 61, has been a full-time Xiu Cai namer for four months, after a career teaching in the army and studying philosophy. 'The companies usually want a name which is unique, new, and with a sense of contemporary 'nowadays'. And it should let people know the company has a large scale. And it should be lucky.' The most popular Chinese characters denote imminent prosperity. Chinese-English names can be devised that are comprehensible in Chinese characters or English words.

Sometimes parents come; one family's 6-year-old son had always gone by a nickname but was now due to start school. Their only request was that his name should not include the characters for 'strong', 'root', 'tree' or 'ball'. The professorial namers opted for Liang Hao Jian, which they said signified intelligence, the likelihood of a successful mid-life working career, and a very happy old age.

'There are no special styles these days,' said Mr Wei, whose own name signifies a great and bright future and was given to him after the 1949 Communist victory when he joined the army.

There is a Chinese saying: 'Better to teach your children skills than give them a lot of money. But better to give your son a good name, than teach him skills.'

'A name is more important than money or skills,' Mr Wei said.