e-Commerce and the Chinese language: developing new technologies

Share this article 

Since its establishment in 2000, CityU's Institute of Chinese Linguistics (ICL) has undertaken a number of research projects utilizing the collective expertise of the staff associated with the institute. One of these projects involves research in the specific context of Chinese language mediated e-commerce. Dr Matthew Lee, Head of the Department of Information Systems (IS), is working with colleagues from the ICL on this groundbreaking project. 

"E-commerce is starting to transform the business world in a fundamental way, notwithstanding the current setback in dotcoms," Dr Lee explained. "Our department is particularly concerned with the use and management of IT in business, and in the last few years it has become increasingly obvious that the single most important use for IT in business is e-commerce." In fact, Dr Lee believes "in a few years' time, when you talk about IT and business organizations, you may be talking about e-commerce, as they may be synonymous."

Demand for greater use of Chinese

With around 200 million people worldwide already connected to the Internet, it is, of course, axiomatic that the potential for the growth of e-commerce in the one billion plus Chinese language speaking community in Asia is enormous. Whilst English is presently the predominant language of e-commerce, there is already a huge demand from this community for greater use of Chinese in such business transactions, Dr Lee said. "It is expected that demand can only grow as the Internet makes further inroads to this community and encounters users to whom English is unfamiliar, or who would prefer, particularly when dealing with other Chinese speakers, to use Chinese."

However, it is not good enough, Dr Lee believes, to simply adopt or transfer technologies used in English-mediated e-commerce for the purposes of Chinese-mediated e-commerce. This is because of the fundamental differences between the English and Chinese languages, and the fact that these differences are being exacerbated by what consumers want when entering the world of e-commerce.

They do not just want textual translations but usability, or intelligence, in terms of transactions. In specific terms, this means finding the right product at the right price, or looking at and comparing different offers; in general terms, this means understanding and sifting the information available in the e-commerce world in a systematic and user-friendly way to meet consumers' needs.
"For the English language, there are technologies starting to appear that can do a fairly good job of this because they are based on a good understanding of English," Dr Lee said. Thus, when a computer uses such technology on the e-commerce text, it can extract information, or make summaries of the information, in a predetermined manner to meet the consumer's needs. "But, unfortunately, there are not sufficient technologies around to enable this to be done through the Chinese language in an exact way."

The reason for this, Dr Lee explained, is because to date there has been insufficient study of the Chinese language as a medium of e-commerce to assist the development of software tools that could provide users with the same intelligent information gathering which is becoming increasingly available to users in the e-commerce world.

Researching consumer psychology

This, coupled with the inadequate interplay between technological developments and the needs of users of Chinese e-commerce, leads Dr Lee to believe that there has been inadequate research into the consumer psychology of such users, in web-shopping as well as other business transactions. "One of the reasons why consumers are reluctant to use Chinese e-commerce is because they don't find the tools particularly easy to use, or, if they can use them, find them incompatible with the way they want to do things, given their behaviours and lifestyle."

Dr Lee said he is working with the ICL because the advancements the members have made in understanding the intricacies of the Chinese language strongly assist in developing devices and programmes that will enable participants in the Greater China area to engage in Chinese e-commerce in a more intelligent and effective way. While there is a number of groups of scholars in China's mainland working on Chinese language e-commerce tools, they are more technocentric in that they largely try to harness technology alone to solve problems, Dr Lee and his colleagues believe that understanding the Chinese language, and developing technologies in light of that understanding, is likely to be the more productive approach.

Understanding the Chinese language

"To conceptualize this approach, the differences between the translation of Chinese and the understanding of Chinese needs to be appreciated. Translation of Chinese is relatively simple, but to understand and extract knowledge from a Chinese language text requires understanding of the probability of what words are used, their meaning, how they are usually used, and even when they are used in certain patterns," explained Dr Lee.

When this understanding has been achieved, a set of parameters can be established to configure software tools which can be applied effectively to deal with Chinese text in a specific way. It is not possible to do this in a general way, Dr Lee warned, because Chinese, like most languages, is too full of irregularities to enable a machine to deal with it in a comprehensive manner. What is done instead is that texts in particular domains are studied to understand the use of Chinese language in those domains and to develop technologies applicable to those domains. Thus a Chinese press database gives a good understanding of the vocabulary, patterns of usage, and the recurrent themes of Chinese language in various domains-for example, wining and dining, films and sport. "It is possible to build an intelligent Chinese language web browser for wine merchants in the Greater China market, for instance on a cellular phone, because you know exactly what to put in there," Dr Lee said.

In relation to the research he and his colleagues are carrying out into consumer psychology, Dr Lee said one of their goals is to understand how Chinese Internet consumers use the web for shopping and other business transactions. Such research, Dr Lee believes, could be drawn upon in the design of tools that allow for the easy and natural integration of users into the world of Chinese language e-commerce.

Dr Lee is also of the view that such research will not only result in tools to make Chinese language e-commerce increasingly attractive to a wider range of consumers, but that these consumers will add impetus to further similar research as the business community seeks to take advantage of this expanding market.

Synergy of research and business

"The research being undertaken is highly interesting because it combines pure research-the scholarly field of Chinese linguistics-with the hard-headed business world-the burgeoning Chinese language e-commerce market." Dr Lee said. He expects this synergy to continue to grow because the research provides economic benefits to both business and consumers. Business will have direct access to consumers without intermediaries. Consumers will benefit by having a wider range of choices on the Internet, by not being limited by physical boundaries, and, in most cases, by being offered a competitive range of prices. And, of course, B2B transactions will also gain by having the same benefits as consumers.

"To ensure that this two-way flow of economic benefits continues," said Dr Lee, "The ICL will continue to carry out research projects that guarantee the continued development of related technology."


Contact Information

Communications and Public Relations Office

Back to top