Chinese heroines take centre stages as female entrepreneurs rise to the top

Chairman Mao believed that women had an equal role to play in building  a great country, and now a thriving group of wealthy female entrepreneurs is emerging, driven on by the sacrifices their mothers made a generation ago. Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother author Amy Chua talked to four of the nation’s newly minted billionaire’s to find what qualities took them to the top.

Zhang Xin

Zhang Xin

[dropcap size=small]T[/dropcap]hey are a beguiling advertisement for the New China—bold, entrepreneurial, tradition breaking – and very rich. Four standouts among China’s intriguing new superwomen are Zhang Xin, a factory worker turned glamorous real-estate billionaire, with 3 million followers on Weibo; 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, co-founder and CEO of one of China’s biggest online retailers.

How did these women make it to the top ? 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?

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 were relocated to rural areas, including Zhang. Returning to Beijing in 1972, she remembers sleeping on office desks, using books for pillows. At 14, Zhang 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 says. 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. “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?”

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 travelled and became immersed in European culture.” In 1992, a year after graduating from Cambridge with a master’s in economics, she was working for Goldman Sachs on Wall Street.


Former dancers stay fit on a snow-covered lake in Changchun. Many Women born in China during the 1950s made tremendous sacrifices so that there children could have a better life.

Former dancers stay fit on a snow-covered lake in Changchun. Many Women born in China during the 1950s made tremendous sacrifices so that there children could have a better life.

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. 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.”

As a mother, Zhang remains more Chinese than Western. 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.

Yang Lan

Yang Lan

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-cantered and no longer appreciate their parents.”

“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 an A 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…Read more in Quintessentially Asia.