A forest sunset and a chop

A lotus flower by any other name would smell as sweet, but not in China. In Beijing last week, I found a flat and adopted a name.

I am moving to the Chinese capital in September to set up a Channel 4 News bureau, and this was the first taste of my new life.

Jason, the young man showing me around, is really called Pei Ling but, like many Chinese, he has adopted a western name, which he thinks is easier for foreigners. Before making Chinese contacts or signing official documents, he said, I would need a Chinese name. He rolled the sounds of Lindsey Hilsum around his tongue and came up with the first problem - my name is too long.

The ideal Chinese surname should be one syllable spoken and one character written. A given name can be two characters and two syllables. The nearest sound he could think of to Hilsum was "he", which means lotus flower. I didn't want to be any kind of flower, so we abandoned half my name. Lin was easy - it's a common surname, meaning forest, while "dsey", he suggested, could be adapted to "xi". Uprooting oneself throws up all sorts of uncertainties and this was the first. I'm now called Lin Xi, which I think means forest sunset.

As I do not start work in China for several months, I decided to be a tourist and go to Panjiayuan market to get a chop, or official seal, carved with my new name in Chinese characters. These days chops are made of plastic and rubber like office stamps anywhere in the world, but the romantic can get them made of semi- precious stone decorated with dragons and other mythical beasts. The bigger the chop, the more important the person. Successive emperors had huge, immensely elaborate seals as a symbol of absolute power.

Among the stalls of fake Tibetan jewellery and Chairman Mao memorabilia, three chop- makers sat in front of small trays arrayed with ink-pads and polished stone columns. I chose a block of dark green olivine, about four inches in height, the inch-square base to be carved with the characters of my Chinese name.

Establishing the company identity was going to be far more complicated. I work for ITN, which produces Channel 4 News. Chinese foreign ministry regulations require that the name of both the company and the news programme be on the chop, but a chop can take no more than eight characters. Lu Bo, ITN's representative in Beijing (who figures his name is simple enough for even idiot Big Noses to remember), sighed as he explained his struggle with the ministry.

It was insisting on a translation requiring 16 characters. First we had to have the word British - that's two characters. Independent (2). TV station (3). News (2). Company (2). Channel (2). Four (1). News (2). We needed a chop big enough for a Ming dynasty emperor.

Our argument over nomenclature is not unique. Peter Hessler, in his book Oracle Bones, describes his struggle to register the New Yorker magazine. The foreign ministry translation reads back as Niu Yue Ren - "New York Person". They are adamant that this cannot be changed to Niu Yue Ke, a phonetic rendition used by Chinese Americans.

Hessler lost the argument - his chop and business card, which apparently cause great hilarity among educated English-speaking Chinese, read "American New York person".

The battle between calligraphy and bureaucracy ended in compromise: the ministry decided that we could use the English acronym for ITN and shorten some concepts. We were down to British (2). TV (2). Channel (1 - found a different word). Four (1). News (2). Eight characters!

Now all I had to do was find a flat. Like most newcomers to the Chinese capital I did not know whether to be admiring, appalled or simply amazed by the speed of construction and the utilitarian modernity of the new high-rise buildings. An estate agent called Miss Wong, dressed in a tight pink Esprit T-shirt, took me to a brand-new block.

We walked through a marble-floored reception area with fake fountain and plaster bridge, and took the lift to the 25th storey. Peering out on a vista of identical blocks, some still under construction, I said I would prefer somewhere lower and tattier. She looked puzzled.

We drove down a street that fulfilled my fantasies of Old China - potholes, dim sum stalls, ancient men with creased faces selling watermelons from the back of horse-drawn carts. Miss Wong wrinkled her nose. The tower block at the end was called "Ten Thousand Wealthy People" but I was not destined to live among them. The flat was dingy, the kitchen tiny, and it was on the 20th floor.

So I took the easy option and chose an apartment in the diplomatic compound, where foreigners were forced to live before the government relaxed the rules. I'm on the ninth floor and it has dormer windows looking out over a green square.

The day before I left China, I signed the lease and sealed it with my chop. It's official: Lin Xi is moving to Beijing.

Lindsey Hilsum is international editor for Channel 4 News

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