The Tao of BS: How Chinese Entrepreneurs Fake It to Make It
Four years ago, while conducting fieldwork on China’s e-commerce industry, I found myself at a promotional seminar run by Crazy Taobao, an e-commerce training institute based in the eastern commercial hub of Yiwu. As I entered the conference hall, located in one of the city’s top hotels, a televised profile of the institution was playing on a loop on an immense screen. When the event officially began, the host led the audience in a chant of “I want to succeed on Taobao! I want to make more money!”
Though everyone seemed embarrassed at first, the icebreaker gradually warmed up the room. The host then asked everyone to stand, raise their hands above their heads, and clap to welcome the institute’s general manager and “chief trainer,” Li Tao, to the stage. Accompanied by a stirring soundtrack and flanked by two bodyguards, a man in a slim-fitting suit strode up to the podium.
Li — who now sometimes goes by Li Peize — introduced himself as a humble Taobao merchant who had hustled his way to the top, eventually becoming the internet’s self-proclaimed “top seller of cross-stitch embroidery.” Now, at the height of his success, he hoped to share his experiences with aspiring digital traders. In particular, he wanted to encourage people who, like himself, were born in China’s impoverished countryside to start their own businesses and achieve prosperity. He claimed some of his trainees earn as much as 1 million yuan ($150,000) a month — the kind of eye-catching figure that had supposedly made his institution one of the best known in Yiwu. “In Yiwu, not knowing about Crazy Taobao is like not knowing who (Chinese President) Xi Jinping is,” he boasted.
“Typical zhuangbi,” muttered Zhou, one of the two locally based online retailers who’d brought me to Li’s “seminar.” A literal translation of this word would be too vulgar to print, but roughly speaking, it means “to showboat,” “put on airs,” or “bulls***,” and is often used as a descriptor for a particularly self-important, pretentious type of person. Although sometimes an insult, it can also be an affectionate gibe between close acquaintances. And as Li seemed intent on proving, if deployed artfully — or just incessantly — it can even form the basis for an entire way of life.
Perhaps aware of the skepticism in the room, Li sought to prove his acumen by dispensing a few nuggets of business wisdom. He stressed the importance of marketing, stating that “only extraordinary tactics produce extraordinary results.” Li illustrated this theory with examples from his own life. Early on, he had the idea of sending out certificates with orders to honor “top” customers. These certificates, he thought, would make the buying experience more memorable for customers, who would remember him as an affable eccentric. Later, when others began to copy him, he switched things up by giving away crystal tumblers bearing inscriptions. After that, it was decorative brocades. Nor did he limit himself to customers: Once, after eating out, he gave the restaurant owner a brocade that proclaimed it to be “The Restaurant of Choice of Yiwu City’s Crazy Taobao E-commerce Company.” According to Li, the boss hung the brocade directly above the cash register, which amounted to free advertisement. At this point, the audience began to clap and cheer.
“Oh, you think that’s a good idea?” Li asked. The crowd responded with more cheers. He followed up with another question: “How would you like to learn from me?” By then, he had them eating out of the palm of his hand. When he went into the audience to dole out his business cards, it was as though he’d scattered a fistful of diamonds: Within seconds, every card had been snatched up. Li flashed a sympathetic smile to audience members in the back rows before launching into a digression on the card’s deliberately peculiar, bank-card style design and how it had impressed his powerful political connections.
Over the course of his lecture, Li kept circling back to the importance of a unique marketing angle. By way of example, he said an ordinary pair of underwear costs 4 yuan to make. Some retailers try and sell them for as little as 7.90 yuan with shipping included, with lackluster results. Their smarter competitors, on the other hand, claim the same underwear can treat kidney failure — an ailment depicted in many TV ads as the Chinese man’s worst nightmare — and sell thousands of them at almost 10 times the price. “How would you even go about proving that — that underwear can cure kidney failure?” he added with a laugh. Clearly, Li isn’t too worried about the country’s truth-in-advertising laws.
As he reached the end of his speech, Li asserted that everything he’d shared up till then was merely the “art” of entrepreneurship. More important to aspiring commercial livestreamers is the “way” — Tao — of entrepreneurship: determination, persistence, and passion, which he collectively referred to as the “root causes of entrepreneurial success.” As he recounted the hardships of building a business from the ground up, he got choked up.
“If I can succeed, so can you! Isn’t that right?” he declared, his previously quivering voice suddenly full of force. The audience responded with riotous applause. He called on everyone to stand up and yell: “I will succeed!”
At long last, we had come to the point of Li’s zhuangbi: the sales pitch. “Not 90,000 yuan! Not 80,000 yuan! Not 70,000 yuan! Not even 20,000 yuan! Just 6,480 yuan!” Li shouted rhythmically, stressing that his classes only accept 40 students a term. There are three conditions that students must agree to: First, they must be willing to share the “skills” they learn with other online retailers; second, they must agree to a penalty should they not pass evaluations; and third, they must donate old clothing to children in China’s poverty-stricken mountain ranges — the last being a savvy nod to a key government initiative. Within minutes, more than 50 people expressed a desire to join the course. Li feigned a look of surprise before generously agreeing to take everyone on board: “If you want to learn, I’ll teach you!”
The motivation to act like Li and zhuangbi — to stand out from the crowd, establish oneself as important and worth listening to — is not new, nor is it exclusive to China. But whereas earlier reform-era ways of showing off, such as the profligate spending on status symbols of xuanfu, were limited to the wealthy, almost anyone can zhuangbi. In a sense, it’s simply a bottom-up discourse of self-betterment, achieved by rebranding oneself into an “entrepreneur,” a class that, unlike migrants, is valued and respected in modern China.
Interestingly, unlike similar self-branding exercises in the United States, which place emphasis on aligning one’s personal brand with their “authentic” self, the fakeness of zhuangbi is a given. The details may differ, but the beats are always the same: the appearance of wealth, real or imagined connections with the country’s elites, and possession of the skills that make the first two possible. Since the performer and audience both know what the role calls for, it only matters how well you play it.
It’s often taken for granted that China’s millions of rural working-class migrants try to internalize and master the lifestyles of the urban middle and upper classes, but zhuangbi is a reminder that migrants possess their own forms of capital and self-legitimation. And performances aren’t unidirectional: The ability to recognize and see through zhuangbi acts like Li’s is a marker that allows more experienced and savvy migrants to separate themselves from the rubes and latecomers.
Indeed, not every attendee was enraptured by Li’s enthusiasm. While I was admittedly a bit swept away by the artful spiel, my companions were unmoved. The anecdote about the unnamed mayor from another province who invited him to give a talk is just something he cooked up to make him sound more important, I was informed; the limit on the number of students is simply basic “hunger marketing” in action; and the requirement to share skills is less about building a community and more about making students advertise his course for free. As for donating clothing to children in the mountains? Merely an inexpensive way to build a reputation as a philanthropist.
“We shouldn’t be telling you all this,” Zhou chuckled. “You’ll think we’re a couple of zhuangbi.”
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Former Alibaba CEO and well known “zhuangbi” artist Jack Ma greets an audience in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, Sept. 10, 2019. Chen Zhongqiu/People Visual)