Inspired by the Chinese work ethic and entrepreneurial spirit

I’ve been going around China for much of my vacation, and one thing that amazes me is the work ethic of the Chinese people.

China is well known for having its one-child per family policy. Once you leave the main hub cities, you are generally allowed to have two children, especially if the first child is a girl.

When you visit a trader, you see a husband and wife team running the store. They also usually have at least one child, who joins them at their store. What happened to the grandparents you might ask? Quite simply, living the entrepreneurial dream and also operating stores of their own, hence finding no time to look after their grandchildren.

What amazed me? A child sleeping on a trolley cart, with just a little cloth to act as a blanket. Another child sleeping on cardboard, with just a little cloth to act as a blanket. Children no older than three, helping their parents sort out items they have received from wholesalers.

I read in the newspapers about the story of a cobbler who went to Shanghai. He earns about RMB1,000 per month. He spends RMB300 per month on rent (he shares a room with four others), and he spends another RMB300 on food (he says he has two man tau for lunch). He saves RMB400 per month. That’s a 40% savings rate. He has a family far away from Shanghai (about 8 hours by train), and he’s OK with living away from them.

We went to get a massage. It was to last a total of 90 minutes and it would cost us a mere RMB75. Do you know what a massage therapist gets paid? RMB17 per customer for 90 minutes of hard work. None of them are also local, preferring to come from towns about 5 hours away. There are no benefits, there are no rest days, and there is no daily wage – if you have no customers, you’re straight out of luck. You do however get lunch or dinner depending on which shift you take.

Quick calculations show that at RMB17/90 minutes, if you can massage 4 customers a day, you walk away with RMB68/day. Do that for 22 days (an average work month), and you’ve got about RMB1,500, without tips. This is more than a Foxconn employee making high value items like iPhones, iPads, and more get per month as a base salary! Yes, there have been increases recently (sometime in May 2010), and you can make a bit more via overtime.

There are showrooms and warehouses that do not ever close. They operate 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. You can go in at anytime you please to take a look at their products.

Traders or workers, everyone does their job with lots of zeal and a smile on their faces. They’re working hard. They’re saving hard. The entrepreneurial spirit is just alive and kicking.

All this provides great inspiration. It makes you want to strive as hard. The Chinese work ethic amazes me, and there is a lot to learn from them.

Aside: It makes you wonder if a country like Malaysia, who is in the middle-income trap, will reach such greatness? Do we have the work ethic? Are we willing to sacrifice for greatness? Are we willing to work hard for great reward?

There are already 10 million English language speakers in China. There are over 300 million learners of the language. Malaysia still flip flops on what language to choose.


  1. I think it's mainly to do with the fact that China's economy has been growing at least 12% a year for the past twenty years or so. Tremendous wealth has been created in a very short time. It's a lot easier for people to see what 'hard work' can do for you. The constant sense of forward momentum means it's very difficult not to scramble as hard as everyone else — it's the norm when you have a supercharged economy like China's.

    Malaysians were working hard in the 70s and 80s too when the economy was going gangbusters. It's at a different stage of the growth curve now, so we can't expect workers and businesses to behave the same way.

    That said, I know perfectly well what you mean when you say you are inspired by the energy and zeal in China. That's what I miss most about the place.

  2. Nazrul K. says:

    that was how my mother & father brought me up. if i'm not in school, i'll be taking care of mom's shop right after school (missing fun time with school friends. but allowed to take a bus all the way to KJ to skate till late nights. WIN!) if i'm not with my mom, i'm with my dad at his office, playing with the telex machine & pentium 90 PCs and I get to watch how he “torture” his employees.

    that said, from what i've seen, malaysian parents try to shield their children from the hardships that they (the parents) have been through. it's the common, conservative denominator on why kids nowadays are more likely to be less inspired to be “self employed”. and also why the hunger is never there. just look at how non-KL people make it better than KL folks in KL.

    just saying, and welcome back :))

  3. Carolyn Chan says:

    China wasn't like this 15 years ago. When I visited Beijing, what I saw then was little to no incentive for people to work a little harder or a little longer because the communist state takes care of everything. Now, some parts of China is like HK. It's neo-communism *cough*capitalism*cough*.

    • colincharles says:

      Most parts of China are like HK now. Its all about the capitalistic need to make more moolah! Bigger cities were like this even when I first visited in 2004.

  4. etbe says:

    Yes, it's amazing how a lack of all social security mechanisms can make people work hard in unreasonable conditions. The entrepreneurial dream is not to be working hard while a grand-parent, it's to earn enough to be able to retire and have some relaxing time babysitting grandchildren.

    Working long hours is not effective, it's why Henry Ford limited the working hours of his employees and there is also research by organisations such as the US army about the ineffectiveness of working long hours. One of the reasons for the 40 hour week is the fact that if you have a factory full of people working much longer hours then they will make enough mistakes to cost you more than the extra production.

    Developed countries have shorter working hours, more holidays, and more social security. They don't have huge economic growth rates, but they don't need it either. People in the middle classes of such countries have already won the lottery (when compared to the vast majority of the world's population) so it makes sense to enjoy it!

    • colincharles says:

      I don't know if its the lack of social security Russell. I know of many grandparents in developed economies whom are working, but at the same time spending time with grandkids and also travelling the world. I think the younger generation now are probably spending a good deal of time making more money, and saving it, to ensure that their future generations have it better.

      I agree with regards to working long hours – I read an amazing piece on why Henry Ford implemented a five-day work week. But I also think that if you're an entrepreneur, building your own business and seeing the returns, you will spend all time possible working on it. Developing nation, developed nation, it maketh no difference – you'll do it!

  5. @russell well, people aren't working like drones in a soviet if that's what you mean. folks are working hard cos they're getting proportionately rewarded.

    even the idyllic middle classes of developed countries will work hard if properly incentivised. just look at what people are willing to do on reality shows :P