From Taichi to Alibaba

What is Chinese culture? Is it about the food we eat and how we eat it, the tea we drink and the way we drink it, or the language we speak and the expressions we use? I would say it is all of them and more.

As part of our AGLA Alibaba Bainian training, we had the opportunity to experience Chinese culture for a whole week. The week started with a day of Taichi and meditation in Alibaba’s Taichi Chan Yuan on the edge of the Xi Xi Wetlands Park where we practiced the first part of Chen’s style Taichi under the instruction of our Taichi Master. The master demonstrated the tricks and strategies when going against greater force than you, in a compromised situation. The excitement of learning Taichi was then followed with a calm and meditating stroll with our meditation instructor who, by the way, had a very calming presence. We focused on the four simple movements of each step; no communication, thoughts or feelings were present when we were taking those steps. My mind was clearer and my heart steadier as a result.

After Taichi and meditation, most of our AGLA class had two days of Chinese language studies. I heard great feedback and lots of laughs from the classes, even though I did not participate in this part as a native Chinese speaker. Everyone was very enthusiastic about a year of learning Chinese and I am looking forward to testing out everyone’s Chinese at the end of the year.

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Learning the Basics of Mandarin

We also had a glimpse of how Chinese calligraphy and traditional ink painting were created and attempted to create our own masterpieces on paper fans. Most of the AGLA class had no or little preconceptions of Chinese calligraphy and ink painting, as a result of that, the art produced was very liberating and creative. It was very interesting for me to look at this Chinese traditional art through the perspective of so many different nationalities.

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Calligraphy – Getting There!

During that week we were also been taken to a beautiful tea house in the mountains west of the internationally famous West Lake for a day of dumpling making and tea tasting. It was like Chinese New Year had come early with everyone chipping in to make dumplings of a range of sizes and shapes. It was just as much fun tasting the ones that survived the cooking process.

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Getting the dough right is very important!

Zhejiang University’s Professor Zhang’s talk on Chinese culture and business cases was the last part of this cultural experience. He skilfully compacted the five thousand years’ worth of social, political, legal and philosophical thoughts and traditions into a four hour presentation, explained how the national culture manifested into corporate and business culture in China, and highlighted how some of the conflicts between international companies and Chinese companies escalated by a lack of mutual understanding of each other’s cultural context, using the case study of Danone and Wahaha to illustrate his points.

As a Chinese national who has spent an equal amount of time in China and in the UK and grown up in both cultures, I was confident that I already had a very good understanding of Chinese culture before the start of our cultural journey and wondered if it was necessary for the company to invest a week’s time on seemingly basic activities. However, as we experienced more and more the different Chinese cultural aspects, I realized that I have been taking a lot of cultural background for granted. Chinese culture is about food, language, literature, history and the shared experience. It is one thing to portray a culture by putting dots on Erin Mayer’s culture map. It is something else to actually experience it and share that experience with some of your closest colleagues.

I also realized that Chinese culture has everything to do with how Alibaba is run. The first moment of realization on this came when I was looking at the Taichi master fluidly and effortlessly diverted a pupil’s attack and threw him off balance. Direction in which you apply your strength/force is even more important than the strength itself. It can be wise not go directly against strong opponents but to connect with him and to channel his power to emptiness. That is what the famous Taichi master’s saying “… using four ounces to divert 1000 pounds” refers to. I believe Alibaba took that approach when competing with eBay in the early days. The long term orientation and patience in the Chinese culture was also adopted by Alibaba when facing strong opponents or investing in challenging markets.

The collectivism and holistic thinking are also some of the Chinese cultural characteristics reflected in the Alibaba’s approach to teamwork, partnership and ecosystem. As a Chinese company in a fast-moving industry that is growing globally, it is crucial for Alibaba to be extremely aware of the Chinese cultural elements that are positive for the development of the company and the elements that would hinder the company’s growth. Alibaba has been very clear about that from very early on. For example, to overcome the hierarchy or centralized decision making tendency, Alibaba used the nickname system to break the hierarchical barriers and encourage more dialogue and innovations from the bottom up.

Only after experiencing and reflecting on the cultural experience, I could truly relate to some of the unique values of the company and understand why some of business decisions were made. I am sure as we AGLA members start working in the different business units, we will continue to think back to the experiences that we had and have a lot more ‘A-ha’ moments to share with everyone where we can see the clear alignment of business and culture!

Dream (刘梦) has lived in the UK, UAE and West Indies during the past 15 years and is now very happy to be back in China with the whole family. A Chartered Engineer, recent MBA graduate, a mother of two, and a fan of painting, hiking and scuba diving, Dream is passionate about using a data technology and platform approach to tackle social and environmental issues and help communities to thrive in a sustainable way.

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