Cute or cult? Inside Alibaba’s curious nickname culture

6 min read

Harry Potter from accounting calls with a question about Gollum’s expense report. Spiderman works late through the night putting the final touches to a slide deck he’ll present to Gandalf the next day. Imagine if employees at Western tech firms went by names of fictional characters from the world of fantasy. Awkward!

But at Chinese internet giant Alibaba, this is common practice.  Workers frequently trade their real names in favor of ones from the realm of fiction and use them in their daily interactions with executives, colleagues, and even suppliers. But instead of superheroes or medieval wizards, they look to the kung fu canon and other aspects of traditional Chinese culture for inspiration.

Jack Ma and the image of the fictional character Feng Qingyang (风清扬 ) from a TV drama adapted from Jin Yong’s novel (Image credit: Alibaba)

The practice—which has now become a tradition—has its origins in founder Jack Ma’s whimsical style and his love of martial arts. The use of such monikers has become so ingrained, that some employees struggle to remember their colleagues’ real names.

While many see the use of nicknames as a light-hearted way to build a common corporate culture, some see them as encouraging a cult-like business style and question their appropriateness given the company’s quest to go global and Ma’s plans to step down. (Alibaba did not respond immediately to requests for comment for this article.)

Alibaba employees are asked to come up with nicknames for themselves, usually drawn from characters in the martial art novels by Jin Yong, the pen name of Louis Cha Leung-Yung, a best-selling wuxia novelist. The term wuxia (literally “martial heroes”) refers to Chinese martial arts-related fiction. In the imagined world of jianghu—the community for martial art masters – the captivating heroes adhere to a strict code of ethics and use signature lethal blows in the pursuit of justice during medieval China.

Alibaba employees, on the other hand, leverage their technological and professional skills for the same goal in modern China and the world, and adhere to the company’s values of integrity, commitment, and passion, as set forth on their corporate website.

“Picking a nickname gives one the opportunity to redefine one’s self—to be the person you want to be,” said Richard Xu, an engineer with Cainiao, an Alibaba affiliate. Twenty-nine-year-old Xu, who lives in Alibaba’s hometown of Hangzhou, goes by the name “Jiangdu (江渡),” which translates as “River Crossing.”

“According to Chinese fengshui, my life lacks the element water,” said Xu, referring to an approach to creating an optimal lifestyle by taking various environmental considerations and traditional beliefs into account. “Taking a water-related nickname can bring balance,” Xu added.

“There’s a Chinese legend about the Zen Buddhist master Dharma’s miraculous crossing of the Yangtze River over a reed after an unsuccessful audience with a Chinese emperor,” Xu explained. “The name finds its roots in Chinese traditional philosophy and wisdom, and gives a sense of elegance because both of the characters appear often in Chinese poems.”

Originally, characters from the works of Jin Yong were among the most popular, which explains why the team of founding executives got some of the more intriguing ones. Ma frequently goes by the name Feng Qingyang (风清扬), which means “wind blows light and brisk.” Ma’s love of wuxia was on full display when he teamed up for a duet with Chinese pop music icon Faye Wong to record the title track of his 2017 taichi mini-movie “Gong Shou Dao,” in which Ma starred alongside almost a dozen martial arts icons.

Shao Xiaofe, Alibaba’s chief risk officer, goes by the nickname of “Guo Jing.” Embodying the virtues of honesty, loyalty, and patriotism, Guo Jing, the protagonist of Jin Yong’s “Legends of the Condor Heroes,” grows to be a perfect hero who fights for justice and defends his nation. In real life, Shao served his country when he worked as a police officer for more than two decades before joining Alibaba. During that period, Shao staked out a forest for more than eight months as part of efforts to capture those responsible for the murder of a family.

Antidote to hierarchy

Alibaba’s nickname system can be traced back to the early days of the company’s founding and was first popularized by employees of Taobao, the company’s e-commerce marketplace. Managers in the customer service department there are dubbed as xiaoer (小二), a term often used in wuxia to depict those who serve food. The adoption of nicknames spread to other units and soon emerged as an important part of Alibaba’s corporate culture.

It wasn’t long before Alibaba’s sprawling expansion dried up the pool of names from kung-fu novels. Alibaba employees began to draw from a wider range of sources such as fiction, animation, movies, popular dramas, internet slang… just about anything. But there was one important proviso—the names shouldn’t have negative connotations.

Getting a nickname is part of the on-boarding ritual for new Alibaba employees. Although meant to be a lighthearted exercise, most would choose carefully because they will go by their “new identity” even if they leave the company. Xu, the engineer, said he conducted an online poll to in which more than 300 people participated before he finally settled on River Crossing.

Some of Xu’s colleagues have gone for more playful nicknames such as “tuhao (土豪)” a cheeky dig at China’s nouveau riche, or “exes” (前任), a humorous reference to people who have been ditched romantically. Others, such as Java developers at the company have named themselves “Jiawa (甲娃)” or “Jiawa (加瓦),” both of which sound similar to the pronunciation of “Java” in Chinese. Others would simply name themselves after Alibaba’s hit terms, such as “Cainiao (菜鸟),” which is the name of Alibaba’s logistics arm, or Huabei, (花呗) Alipay’s micro-credit service, or “Wuxin (五新),” a reference to Alibaba’s five-pronged strategy.

Underpinned by the influence of thousands of years of Confucian teaching, China’s business world is traditionally governed by a hierarchical structure, which results typically in slow flows of information, and a monopoly on power. Using nicknames creates a flatter management system since even those at the top are referred to by their pet names, said Xu.

Communication is further facilitated in a sense that the nicknames can serve as a form of shorthand about a person’s character. The fictional character may suggest certain traits that are shared by the person who assumes that nickname, as one user of China’s Quora Zhihu pointed out.

Duncan Clark, the author of “Alibaba: The House That Jack Ma Built,” also said the practice helped “engender a sense of community and informality in the company.”

“It’s unique given that it was formed back in 1999-2000 when the weight of the state-owned enterprises was much heavier,” said Clark. “Those employers typically gave employees numbers.”

Enter the Confucian gentleman

Still, not all employees are fans of the nickname system, with some choosing not to create one.

Hans Steinmüller, an anthropology professor at the London School of Economics and Political Science who has conducted extensive fieldwork, says the nicknames and the “Alibaba cult” are ways of strengthening workers’ identification with the company.

“This can be for good or bad,” Steinmüller wrote in an email in response to questions from TechNode. “And while some might feel it helps to realize some hidden potential, others might find it oppressive.”

Steinmüller said that, aside from drawing on elements of traditional culture in their management style, Chinese firms and bureaucracies also combine various institutional styles, including Maoist organization and international management practices. Without a doubt, some influential entrepreneurs, such as Ma, frequently invoke ideas of Chinese tradition.

“In particular, the idea of being a ‘Confucian gentleman,’ the relationships between teacher and student (or master and apprentice), and of ‘sworn brothers,’ are ideas that might be very attractive to many Chinese,” said Steinmüller. “But they are certainly adapted to new contexts and times,” he added.

For Steinmüller, the “cultish” element in Alibaba is the result of a combination of factors: “Aside from Chinese tradition, probably, it has as much to do with a hundred years of experimenting with new forms of organization and bureaucracy in China,” he said. “I’m skeptical whether using nicknames, in itself, ‘forms identities’ within Alibaba,” Steinmüller noted, “but I suppose it strengthens people’s sense of commitment and belonging.”

It will be challenging for a company of Alibaba’s size to maintain its original corporate culture, especially as it builds a larger global presence. It’s also not clear if the nickname system will outlive Ma.

Xu, who comes from Alibaba’s domestic business told TechNode that while nicknames prevail in his office, that’s not the case for the company’s international market departments. In such divisions, it’s common to address others either by their real names or by the English names they have chosen for themselves.

As for the impact of the departure of Ma, author Clark is optimistic, saying: “Jack [Ma] has a much more personal impact than other Chinese founders, but also he has strived to create a culture that can thrive without him.”