Naming the CCTV Tower (or Why “Big Underpants” is Better Than “Hemorrhoids”)

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The new China Central Television tower

The new China Central Television tower (Getty Images)

Walking through my neighborhood last night I passed an old couple walking a large, shaggy chow. Another neighbor gave it a look, paused and asked, “What do you call it?”

“We call it, ‘big bear,’” one of the owners said.

“Oh, I was going to say, it looks just like a bear,” the neighbor replied.

Names, especially nicknames, pet names and the like, can be incredibly literal things in China. If you are fat, there’s a good chance people will call you “fatty.” If you have a big beard, people will call you “big beard.”

The same goes for iconic structures. The Great Wall (or literally, the “long wall”) doesn’t leave a lot of doubt as to what it is. Many of the famous new buildings that have gone up in Beijing recently have been given their own tags by the people. The National Center for the Performing Arts is known as the “Duck Egg.” The National Stadium is known as the “Bird’s Nest.” They’re both humble yet fitting names for these grand edifices.

The people at China Central Television are apparently not so happy with the public’s nickname for their gleaming new headquarters. The building, which was designed by Rem Koolhaas and Ole Scheeren, consists of two slanting towers that are joined by sections on the ground and two horizontal sections at the top to form a continuous loop. It is an architectural and engineering marvel. To the people of Beijing it is simply, “Big Underpants.”

That name is not yet as common as “Bird’s Nest” or “Duck Egg,” and CCTV seems intent on thwarting the rise of the admittedly inelegant Big Underpants. The state-run broadcaster has asked for alternatives from staff members, according to a report in the Chinese press, but so far they’ve had little luck coming up with a popular substitute.

Centuries ago Confucius spoke about the “rectification of names,” which, somewhat ironically, is a highfalutin way of saying you need to call things what they are. Perhaps CCTV should heed the wisdom of the sage, and the people of Beijing, and go with Big Underpants. It could be worse. One possible substitute floated in the Chinese press was the “Wisdom Window.” Nice try, but as some online commenters have noted, in Chinese it’s a homonym for “hemorrhoids.”