Society

Fu’s cultural evolution

New must-read book on China’s entrepreneurialism

Fu: tale of survival and success

It’s not often a book starts with a description of its author being deported. And it’s all the more unusual when the writer is being exiled from the country of her birth.

But that’s the way Fu Ping’s Bend Not Break begins­. As she points out: “Because of my writing and other activities, I was no longer welcome in my homeland.”

So is this the standard tale of a dissident forced from her home? Far from it. Subtitled A Life in Two Worlds, Fu’s memoir recounts how she grew up in the chaos of China’s Cultural Revolution, but later became a successful tech entrepreneur in the United States. In fact, she sold her firm Geomagic (more on which later) to 3D Systems two weeks ago.

If it sounds like a fairy tale, then it is one with dark and traumatic moments. Fu’s grim descriptions lend a personal dimension to the horror of the decade-long Cultural Revolution period. With a narrative that jumps chronologically between her time in China and her later life in the US, her memoir is a stunning study in contrasts. If you are looking for a book that lays bare some of the best of the Chinese character – its striking capacity for both endurance and entrepreneurialism – this is one to choose.

That very resilience is reflected in the title: Bend Not Break. When Fu was very young her father took her into their Shanghai garden and pointed to the bamboo. He told her she could learn much from this plant: “Bamboo is flexible, bending with the wind but never breaking, capable of adapting to any circumstance. It suggests resilience, meaning that we have the ability to bounce back from even the most difficult times.”

He added: “Your ability to thrive depends, in the end, on your attitude to your life circumstances. You take everything in your stride with grace, putting forth energy when it is needed, yet always staying calm inwardly.”

Fu’s early life was relatively privileged, she recounts. She grew up in a three-storey villa, walled off from the Shanghai street, with a traditional Chinese courtyard. Her father ran a local factory that made thread.

“Chairman Mao’s most radical reforms had yet to fully penetrate China’s most cosmopolitan city then; a Hong Kong tailor still made the Western suits my brothers wore to school, ” she recalls.

That all changed, quite suddenly, with the arrival of the Cultural Revolution in 1966. Writes Fu: “It would prove to be the darkest period in modern Chinese history: thirty-six million people were persecuted, and three million were killed or maimed.”

For her, the turbulence began when neighbours and Red Guards marched into their home. Her father was called a revisionist and arrested, while her elder brothers were sent off to the countryside. A couple of months later her tormentors came back for her too. “You are not a resident of Shanghai,” she was told. “You can’t live here. We will take you to Nanjing. It is the city of your registry residence because you were born there.”

It is only at this juncture that Fu discovers that her Shanghai parents are not her natural ones. Her Shanghai ‘mama’ is actually the sister of her real mother who, along with her real father, are academics in Nanjing (Fu’s was an unwanted birth).

Aged eight, Fu is then dumped with her younger sister on a crowded train to Nanjing. On arrival in the city she is taken by Red Guards to the Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Aviation, where her parents had taught. In a chilling moment she hears her birth mother cry out from the back of a departing truck, “Take care of your sister”. It will be the last she sees of ‘Nanjing mother’ for many years.

“That was the first time I felt the falling sensation that was to become so familiar to me over the years. I was falling, falling and there was no one to catch me. There was no one there who knew me, and no one to care for me.” Instead she had to care for and raise her four year-old sister.

Fu’s new accommodation is a filthy room with a communal loo. “Instead of Western-style commodes or traditional Chinese squat toilets, there was only a long, open U-shaped concrete trough,” she writes. “Sewage floated inside, in danger of overflowing. A line of strangers squatted over it, dropping waste in front of me from their bare bottoms.”

Her new life was unremitting. Fu was told that she had ‘black’ blood (a reference to her family’s merchant class) and on her third day in Nanjing, she and other ‘black’ elements were taken for a “bitter meal” consisting of animal dung, tree bark and dirt. “This is what our ancestors ate,” said the Red Guards. “Our parents, grandparents and great-grandparents suffered because your selfish families deprived them of good food. Today you will eat this bitter meal to remember our families suffering.”

She was soon to experience her first self-criticism session too. Fu recalls being paraded in the demeaning ‘airplane’ position and being made to shout: “I am nobody. I don’t deserve even to live. Anybody can step on me and squash me like a bug.”

But the most harrowing description in the book centres on Fu, aged only 10, being attacked by Red Guards. “The boys kicked me so hard that I flew into the air”, she remembers. During the assault she loses consciousness and is later told she has a broken tailbone, and needs more than 40 stitches. “I didn’t understand what had happened to me or why, and I wouldn’t for several years. We received no sex education in China, and I had no parents or guardians to explain to me that I had been gang-raped.”

Fu was soon made to work and was assigned a factory job. Luckily she was put under the supervision of a kindly worker named Wang. He taught her how to assemble radios – and within a year she was building 50 of the devices a day. Later Wang helped train her to become an electrical engineer, with the pair wiring up a new motorcycle factory. After that Fu worked at a car plant, operating dangerous milling machinery that made screws and fasteners.

Until this point Fu had received no formal education, save for writing essays in praise of Mao. But the Cultural Revolution was coming to an end and schools and universities were beginning to open again. She managed to get into Suzhou University, where she studied Chinese literature. But she was soon in trouble with the authorities again, after an article in the magazine she edited compared Mao’s Little Red Book to the Bible. The furore even came to the attention of Deng Xiaoping. “As editor-in-chief I was held responsible for the trouble,” she writes. In her file she was labelled a ‘Four Anti’: anti-Communiist, anti-socialist, anti-stability and anti-China. “This was the worst label anyone could receive.”

It would get worse. Fu wrote her thesis on the newly-introduced one-child policy, spending months travelling around the countryside, interviewing midwives.

“What I discovered was shocking. Everywhere in rural areas, infant girls were being killed,” Fu recalls. The thesis was completed in 1982, her never imagining anything would come of it. But her university department sent a copy to a Shanghai newspaper and the People’s Daily also reported on its findings. The revelations found their way into the international press, resulting in the “worldwide shaming of my country,” Fu says.

Soon after she was abducted by the secret police and locked up for three days. On her release a police officer told her: “You are a lucky girl. If this were the Cultural Revolution, you would surely be dead now.”

A few weeks later she was told she had to leave China. “Exile was, in my opinion, a far preferable fate to being sentenced to a hard labour camp in Chinese Siberia.” Luckily her family were able to use some connections to get her a place at a US university.

At this point we return to the book’s opening paragraphs, where Fu describes an emotional parting from her family at the airport in Shanghai, boarding her flight for America. At the time, she knows only three expressions in English – hello, thank you and help – and has just enough cash to pay for the connecting flight to Albuquerque, where she’ll study at the University of New Mexico.

All her resilience is required once more, as Fu starts her new life in America. A top priority is learning English. By cleaning homes and later working as a waitress she earns enough to pay for a language course, although in calculus classes she soon realises that she has a problem – she doesn’t know what a fraction is. So she goes to the city library to find first grade books and teach herself math 101. Fu’s rapid progress in this respect might confirm the view (held by some Westerners) that the Chinese are somehow blessed with a ‘mathematical gene’.

She moves next to San Diego to complete an undergraduate degree in computer science. At this juncture her finances take a turn for the better through a serendipitous meeting with the owner of a database firm called Resource Systems Group. It is Fu’s first experience with an entrepreneurial company; she works by night, and studies by day. By the time she graduated in 1988 she is earning $80,000 a year.

The firm’s owner is impressed with Fu’s work ethic. When she tells him she’s accepted a job with blue chip Bell Labs in Illinois, he tells her she’ll hate working for a big firm and offers her a 5% equity stake to stay. She turns it down, but says when AT&T later bought the company “I finally understood what 5% meant: millions.”

Her time at Bell Labs did prove disillusioning and in 1990 she joined the National Centre for Supercomputing Innovations (NCSA). “My unconventional life trajectory – which had taken me from Chinese literature to software databases to computer networking – made me a perfect fit for this environment. I never felt so excited about a job.”

She began to work on 3D and virtual reality. Her team cooperated with George Lucas to create the computer-generated effects in Terminator 2 and in 1992 she hired Marc Andreessen, “a witty, upbeat and extremely bright undergraduate”. In one of her team’s initiatives, Netscape was born. It would prove another eye-opening experience, especially when the NCSA project was spun off, sparking the dotcom boom with its IPO in 1995.

By now married with a child, Fu makes a big decision: she wants to start her own company. She decides to focus on a revolutionary new technology: 3D printing.

She saw industrial potential in the idea. In the 19th century cobblers made shoes to fit their customers’ feet precisely. Fu thought that 3D scanners and printers could do something similar – producing individualised products, eventually cheaply enough to compete with standardised assembly line factory products. Imagine scanning your foot, then printing a shoe that fitted it perfectly.

“I was possessed with the idea of revolutionising the manufacturing process, just as Henry Ford once did with his invention of the assembly line… I realised my calling as an entrepreneur.”

She saw that 3D scanners existed, as did 3D printers – capable of making objects –but they didn’t work together well. She would build a software interface to make the process easy.

The idea inspired others – particularly firms who saw the value in printing ‘prototypes’ of products or making exact copies of existing parts (for example, for aging aircraft). After demonstrating the possibilities to Boeing and Mattel – who both became clients of her new firm Geomagic – she raised $6.5 million.

They were heady times: “My life here was an embodiment of the American dream.” But there was trouble ahead. The technology was a little ahead of its time and an expensive salesforce found it hard to close deals. Fu was burning through cash fast and came within three months of bankruptcy.

Cue that resilience once more. Refusing to give up, Fu mortgaged her house and pumped all her savings into the company. She cut a deal to save the company and it became profitable in 2003, expanding too into Germany. In 2005 Inc Magazine named her Entrepreneur of the Year.

That same year she returns to her homeland, selling Geomagic’s 3D software in China, where it now comprises 15% of the company’s business.

Fu retains her belief in the potential of combining 3D scanning and printing to make customised products, cheaply and locally. “Humans are anything but one-size-fits-all; each of our bodies is unique… with personal factories there is no need to maintain a huge inventory; no costs or environmental degradation for shipping goods halfway across the earth by sea, rail or air; and far less waste.”

Ironically, if Fu is right about the 3D printing revolution, one of the biggest losers could be her native China’s huge manufacturing sector. The US, on the other hand, would be a gainer as production localised.

She even says that the idea is beginning to work in the US – Geomagic has contributed to mass customisation for aligners used to straighten teeth (each aligner is produced uniquely and made to exactly fit the client’s set of teeth).

Earlier this month 3D Systems, a maker of 3D printers, acquired Geomagic (the price paid was not announced) bringing an end to the current chapter of Fu’s entrepreneurial success story.

In her memoir Fu details another closure of sorts. In 2006 she attended a bizarre ‘class reunion’ of her Red Guard study group. Having been the despised ‘black element’ decades before, she was now welcomed in China as the guest of honour. A former Red Guard toasted her, saying “I know I beat you and I am sorry for it.”

The dinner had a strong impact on Fu. “I was struck by how much more American I felt than Chinese when I was with them… They ordered the waitress around without a hint of politeness, which is typical in China, but given my many years of waitressing in the US, I felt resentful of their rude behaviour. I also noticed they were uninhibited in discussing their private affairs, whereas I was more reserved.”

This led her to conclude: “In the 25 years that I have lived in the United States, I truly had become an American.”

WiC is fond of saying that most books about China will be out of date within six months. That is not the case here as this powerful memoir will have a lengthy shelf-life. In fact, it would be no great surprise if Hollywood tries to turn it into a film.

Keeping track: the Hollywood deal that WiC predicted for Fu Ping in issue 178 may be on ice. The successful US software entrepreneur and author of the memoir Bend Not Break has been on the defensive in recent days, after critics questioned the authenticity of some of her recollections of the Cultural Revolution. Fu has since conceded that a description of Red Guards brutally executing a teacher probably didn’t happen and was more likely “an emotional memory”. She has also clarified other incidents mentioned in the book but adds that she’s “shocked, heartbroken and deeply saddened” by what she considers a smear campaign, reports The Guardian in the UK. Her publisher, Penguin, has said it has “absolute confidence” in the memoir. The book is “substantially correct” and “attempts to pick apart elements of it are political attacks,” it warns. (Feb 8, 2013)


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