They're starting revolutions, opening schools, and fostering a brave new generation. From Detroit to Kabul, these women are making their voices heard.
Like a relentless overachiever, China is eagerly collecting superlatives. It’s the world’s fastest-growing major economy. It boasts the world’s biggest hydropower plant, shopping mall, and crocodile farm (home to 100,000 snapping beasts). It’s building the world’s largest airport (the size of Bermuda). And it now has more self-made female billionaires than any other country in the world.
This is not only because China has more females than any other nation. Many of these extraordinary women rose from nothing, despite living in a traditionally patriarchal society. They are a beguiling advertisement for the New China—bold, entrepreneurial, and tradition-breaking.
Four standouts among China’s intriguing new superwomen are Zhang Xin, the factory worker turned glamorous real-estate billionaire, with 3 million followers on Weibo (China’s Twitter); talk-show mogul Yang Lan, a blend of Audrey Hepburn and Oprah Winfrey; restaurant tycoon Zhang Lan, who as a girl slept between a pigsty and a chicken coop; and Peggy Yu Yu, cofounder and CEO of one of China’s biggest online retailers. None of these women inherited her money, and unlike many of the richest Chinese who are reluctant to draw public scrutiny to their path to wealth, they are proud to tell their stories.
How did these women make it to the top in the wild, wild East? Did they pay a price, either in their family or their professional lives? What was it that distinguished them from their famously hardworking compatriots? As I set out to explore these questions, my interest was partly personal. All four of my subjects lived for extended periods in the West. As a Chinese-American, and now the infamous Tiger Mom, I was curious: how “Chinese” were these new Chinese tigresses?
It turns out that each of these women, in her own way, is a dynamic combination of East and West. Perhaps this is one secret to their breathtaking success.
Zhang Xin is a rags-to-riches tale right out of Dickens. She was born in Beijing in 1965. The next year Mao launched the Cultural Revolution, and millions, including intellectuals and party dissidents, were purged or forcibly relocated to primitive rural areas. Children were encouraged to turn in their parents and teachers as counterrevolutionaries. Returning to Beijing in 1972, Zhang remembers sleeping on office desks, using books for pillows. At 14 she left for Hong Kong with her mother, and for five years she worked in a factory by day, attending school at night.
“I was a miserable kid,” she told me. With her chic cropped leather jacket and infectious laughter, the cofounder of the $4.6 billion Soho China real-estate empire is today an odd combination of measured calculation and warm spontaneity. “My mother drove me in school so hard. That generation didn’t know how to express love.
“But it wasn’t just me. It was all of China. I don’t think anybody was happy. If you look at photos from those days, no one is smiling.” She mentioned the contemporary artist Zhang Xiaogang, who paints “cold, emotionless” faces. “That’s exactly how we all grew up.”
At 20, desperate to escape, Zhang made her way to England with barely more than a dictionary, a wok, and a cleaver. “The minute I went to England, everything changed,” she said. Back home, “it was unthinkable that someone like me could go to university. But in England, who doesn’t go to university? It was like, if you don’t have money, you can apply for grants.”
Thus began Zhang’s love affair with the West. At the University of Sussex, “I read so much history, philosophy—I loved the opera. I traveled and became immersed in European culture, the Enlightenment.” In 1992, a year after graduating from Cambridge with a master’s in economics, she was working for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.
But Zhang yearned to return to China. In 1994, while in Beijing, she met Pan Shiyi, a budding real-estate tycoon from even humbler origins, who had already scored big by speculating in one of China’s early real-estate bubbles. Sparks flew, and Pan proposed four days later. The next year the two founded the company that would become Soho China. The early days weren’t easy. Zhang’s unabashedly Western outlook clashed with her husband’s more traditional ways, and they fought incessantly. Some of Pan’s colleagues referred to her disparagingly as his “foreign wife.” At one point they separated, with Zhang returning to England.
But the couple persevered, had two sons, and, by combining Pan’s shrewd local savvy with Zhang’s flair for innovative architectural design, shot to the top of Beijing’s real-estate elite. For the last decade they’ve been Beijing’s “it” couple, hosting celebrity parties while erecting some of the city’s most iconic new structures. Zhang, one of Forbes’s 50 most powerful women in the world, masterminded Soho China’s spectacular Commune by the Great Wall, which won her a prize at the 2002 Venice Biennale. Nestled at the foot of the Great Wall, the commune featured a collection of private villas designed by 12 of the most prominent architects in Asia.
Zhang sees a lack of innovation as a persistent problem for China. “Going forward, we need people who can invent. The reason China doesn’t have a Steve Jobs is because of the education system, which needs reform, along with health care and the political system. China does not train enough people to think.”
In fact, Zhang identifies with Jobs. “I was just like him, a perfectionist.” To every design an employee sent her, “I’d say, ‘No good, no good!’ I’d get angry, because when your standards are that high and others are not reaching them, you get frustrated.” But Zhang and Pan increasingly felt a spiritual void despite their success, and in 2005 the couple converted to the Bahai faith. The experience, she says, transformed her. “Not that my drive or standards are different, but I now understand that you need everybody to grow and to be empowered.” It doesn’t hurt that Zhang and Pan, who always appear to be one step ahead of their competition, have publicly embraced a new system of values at a time when class tensions are on the rise and China’s “moral vacuum” has become a ubiquitous theme.
As a mother, Zhang remains more Chinese than West-ern. When her sons, now 11 and 13, get home from school, she makes them practice Chinese characters every day for two hours, rebuffing their pleas to go to friends’ houses or play soccer.
But will the next generation be too soft to push ahead as their parents have? “In China nowadays, teachers are desperate,” Yang Lan told me over lunch. With her upswept hair and porcelain skin, Yang radiated celebrity power. “They’re worried that all the only children—‘little emperors’—are spoiled and self-centered and no longer appreciate their parents.”
She told me how one school had invited 1,000 parents to sit on chairs on the playground, “then asked the kids to wash their parents’ feet in front of everyone—a sign of filial piety.” I remembered my own grandmother washing her feet in a blue plastic tub when she lived with us in Indiana, and how I used to take off my father’s shoes when he came home from work every day. “I can understand the teachers’ desperation,” Yang continued. “They’re afraid that kids are losing xiao dao, respecting and caring for parents, which used to be a core pillar of Confucianism.”
At 43, Yang melds modernity and tradition. Though she jets around the world, captivating Western audiences at TED talks, she still lives with her parents: “We are a traditional family, three generations living together.” Like most Chinese, she prefers warm water to iced because “in traditional Chinese medicine, the biggest danger for women is to be cold.” And although she claims she doesn’t push her kids—“the parent’s job is to help their children find their true passion”—she also let slip the Chinese kicker: “As long as they get a 90 or better, that’s all I ask.”
Of the four women I interviewed, Yang’s childhood was the most comfortable. Her family, originally from Shanghai, was relatively well off, and her father was a politically connected English professor, serving occasionally as interpreter for Premier Zhou Enlai. At 21, along with 1,000 other young women, she auditioned to host the top-rated talk show in China. After she made it through six rounds, a judge told her, “You are not beautiful enough.” At first crushed, Yang decided to win by “outsmarting the more beautiful girls.” Asked whether she would “dare to wear a bikini,” she replied that it depended on where she was: on a nude beach in France, a bikini might be too much. She won the spot and shot to superstardom.
Four years later, she quit the show for Columbia University in New York, saying she wanted to see the world. While earning a master’s in international affairs, she met “Bruno” Wu Zheng, son of a wealthy Shanghai family. They were married at the Plaza Hotel in 1995.
In 1998, together with Bruno, Yang launched her own news-interview program and got back on the big stage. Over the years she has interviewed the Clintons, Tony Blair, Kobe Bryant, and Henry Kissinger (and lesser lights like me). In 2000, to great fanfare, she and Bruno founded the Hong Kong–based Sun TV, investing millions of their own and directly competing with Rupert Murdoch’s Star TV. The project bombed: it not only failed to dislodge Murdoch but was permitted only limited access to mainland Chinese households. A devastated Yang had to sell the station at substantial loss in 2003. “When I sold Sun TV, it was like giving your child away. It took me a few years to be able to face it.”
But then she and Bruno had an idea—women’s television. China had almost no talk shows for women. They created a program, Her Village, targeting younger urban women and occasionally featuring personal revelations by celebrity guests. Premiering in 2005, the show has been a winner, and today Yang and her husband preside over one of China’s largest private media empires, with China’s Hurun Rich List estimating the couple’s net worth at $1.1 billion (although this figure has never been substantiated).
Thirty years into China’s one-child policy, many are concerned about the prospect of letting a billion spoiled brats bloom. Herself a mother, Yang is worried about parental overpampering. She is critical of parents who hover over their children, “doing their work for them and buying them houses.” But China’s “little emperors” are coddled in a distinctly Chinese way. While doted on and catered to, they are also loaded up with the expectations of parents who have invested all their dreams—not to mention money—in their only child. These “spoiled” children often study and drill from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. every day.
“It’s so sad for a lot of women,” said Yang, “that their whole self-worth depends on their child’s exam scores. They only know a few names like Harvard or Yale but don’t even know what’s taught there.”
Since its flagship dining room opened in Beijing’s 81-story China World Tower in 2000, the hip restaurants of the South Beauty empire have become China’s power-dining temples. At the helm of the brand is 54-year-old Zhang Lan, China’s premier celebrity restaurateur, who, despite her entourage of young staffers, exudes a quirky and down-to-earth sense of fun.
Born in Beijing to intellectual parents, Zhang was 9 when the Cultural Revolution ripped her life apart. Sent with her mother to a cadre camp in rural Hubei province, she tended pigs and slept on an earthen floor. In the evenings she watched her mother kneel in the cafeteria, forced to hold a sign declaring herself a political dissident.
“All of China was in darkness at that time,” Zhang told me in Chinese (she’s the only one of the four who doesn’t speak English), “but my mother never once cried or complained.” She says her time in the cadre camp taught her to chi ku (eat bitterness), a Chinese term meaning to endure hardship.
Zhang vowed to get to the West when, years after the Cultural Revolution, her toddler son, Xiaofei, was shivering with cold in their one-story coal-burning lodging. When a chance to go to Canada (through an uncle) came up, Zhang seized it, leaving her son behind with her mother and grandmother.
In Toronto, Zhang’s one goal was to save $20,000 and return to her son in China. It took years, but she made the sum by working numerous part-time jobs, mostly in restaurants doing menial labor. “I worked weekends and holidays to be paid double. I never took a single day off.”
Back in Beijing in 1990, she used her savings to get into the restaurant business. She started small but saw something others hadn’t: the untapped demand among white-collar professionals for a swank dining experience combining Western ambience with haute Chinese cuisine. Today she’s worth nearly $500 million, with more than 40 tony restaurants across China. Zhang remains chairperson, though she recently relinquished the title of CEO to Xiaofei.
Zhang was a hard-driving mother, regularly threatening and spanking her son when he didn’t make top grades. When he was 14, she sent him to a boarding school in France, requiring him to work to help pay for tuition. Today mother and son are extremely close, and he has repeatedly said how grateful he is to her.
Now divorced, Zhang lives with her “soulmate,” a Chinese photographer-artist. Meanwhile, Xiaofei is living the high life. At 30, with a Ferrari and tabloid marriage to Taiwanese actress Barbie Hsu, he is a classic fu er dai, the offspring of China’s super-rich, whose extravagant lifestyles have often made them objects of popular resentment. Zhang defends her son, insisting that he earned every penny of his wealth. “He inherited his values and personality from me,” she said.
Values are also uppermost in the mind of Peggy Yu Yu, whose son, Xander, won’t use chopsticks and eats breakfast at McDonald’s every morning. At 14, he does stand-up comedy and runs his own small business. All this Yu, 46, CEO of the online retail empire Dangdang, with an estimated personal net worth of $330 million, told me with barely concealed pride over tea in her all-glass Beijing office. “He’s very enterprising, very independent. He and I inspire each other.”
Yu’s childhood was far crueler than Xander’s. Although she was always a top student, “first or second in a grade of 240 people ... I was never good enough for my parents. If I didn’t get 100 in a subject, I’d be weeping.” Persecuted during the Cultural Revolution, Yu’s parents did to her what was done to them: “When I did something wrong, they would make me write a letter of self-criticism and post it on the wall.”
Like the other three women, Yu is a hai gui (returned turtle), who came back to China after spending time in the West. (There are also plenty of homegrown Chinese billionaires with a much less cosmopolitan outlook, who are often unwilling to discuss their sources of wealth, especially with Western media; several declined to be interviewed for this article.) Yu first encountered Westerners as a college student in Beijing, when she tutored visiting Americans. “They were such a happy group,” she recalled, “it made me want to get closer to them.” In 1987 she had a chance to visit the United States. “Whenever I had time, I made phone calls from hotel lobbies to see if any universities would interview me ... I needed to jump from China to America; I didn’t care where.” Yu started at the University of Oregon and went on to get an M.B.A. from the NYU Stern School of Business.
In America, Yu fell madly in love with Western consumerism. “If I wanted to buy shoes or clothes or food, there were so many choices.” In China, “there were no choices. Shopping was painful.” In 1995 while working on Wall Street, Yu heard about Amazon going online. Intrigued, she bought something—and was hooked. The next year she met her future husband, the ambitious publisher and entrepreneur Li Guoqing. Together they founded Dangdang in Beijing in 1999. Like Amazon, Dangdang initially offered just books but gradually expanded. “I didn’t set out to get rich. I just wanted to duplicate my happy shopping experience with others in China.”
Despite her affection for America, Yu emphasized that working women in China have advantages over their American counterparts. “China has social infrastructure that America doesn’t have, such as inexpensive domestic help and the tradition of having grandparents look after babies.” In fact, all four women felt that, at least in business, women and men in China operate largely on a level playing field. “Sixty years of communism,” said Yu, “did one really good thing: bring true equality between the sexes. I think people in China are brought up believing that women are just as capable as men.”
To be sure, some might point out that all these women, with the exception of Zhang Lan, got an extra boost from their successful and well-connected husbands. And certainly China’s political sphere remains male-dominated: women are starkly underrepresented in China’s Parliament and the Communist Party’s Central Committee. In fact, many young Chinese women, disillusioned about their prospects in an economy many see as navigable only by those with money or connections, say the best hope for a woman is “to marry a rich man.” On a popular TV dating show, a model rebuffed an endearing but poor suitor by saying, “I’d rather cry in a BMW than laugh on the back seat of a bicycle.” In a survey of more than 50,000 single women, as reported in China Daily, 80 percent agreed that “only men who make more than 4,000 yuan [$634] a month deserve to have a relationship with a woman.” All over China, attitudes toward marriage and sex seem to be changing.
In many ways, the Mao era was a deviation for China: anti-intellectual, anti-Confucian, collectivist rather than family-oriented. Thus, as China sheds its communist mantle, it is not only Westernizing but also Sinicizing, rediscovering its traditional values.
These values, however, are mutating. The traditional Chinese family, for example, was a pyramid, with a few revered elders at the pinnacle and many younger generations below. In a typical Chinese family today, the pyramid has been inverted, with a “little emperor” only child at the bottom, doted on and catered to by parents and grandparents. At the same time, while the intense competitive pressures of Confucian China have returned, the countervailing Confucian values—selflessness, compassion, honor, and rectitude—have not. As a result, many worry that the China emerging from communism will know no values other than wealth and materialism.
“When we were growing up,” says Yang, “we wanted to be nurses, doctors, astronauts, teachers. Today people are suspicious of anything noble or grand. Kids just want to be rich or powerful.” In 2009, schoolchildren in Guangzhou City were asked what they wanted to be when they grew up. A viral Internet video—later blocked and deleted—showed an adorable 6-year-old giving her answer: “A corrupt official.”
China is so old that nothing is new. In its 5,000-year history there have been frequent periods of endemic corruption and soul searching. There have also been periods of cosmopolitan openness and exploding wealth. And there have been fantastically powerful women, from China’s female emperor Wu Zetian to the calculating Madame Mao.
But the four women I interviewed are a new breed. Progressive, worldly, and open to the media, they are in many ways not representative of China, past or present. Perhaps they are merely the lucky winners of the 1990s free-for-all in China, a window that may already be closing. Or perhaps they are the forerunners of a China still to come, in which paths to success are far more open. Each has found a way to dynamically fuse East and West, to staggering commercial success. It may still be a long way off, but if China can achieve a similar alchemy—melding its tremendous economic potential and traditional values with Western innovation, the rule of law, and individual liberties—it would be a land of opportunity tough to beat.
Celia Choy, Gloria Jean Gong, Tian Huang, James Shih and Christine Tsang provided research assistance.
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