At the turn of 1980s, thousands of aspiring students passed the newly implemented college entrance exam and came to Wuhan University (WHU). They were regarded as elites when graduating for only few people had college diplomas back then. Looking back on their hard work and achievements, we can tell that the mindset of being an elite played a big part in their success.
The “WHU group” members, Chen Dongsheng, Tian Yuan, Mao Zhenhua et al, also widely known as “92’s businessmen” share a similar growth trajectory: outstanding students at college who got government offers after graduation; holding master’s or even doctoral degrees and being promoted to a high position at a young age. To conclude, they were all elites with wide and far-reaching visions. Borrowing experience from the western world, they took full advantage of the budding economic market.
An idealistic young man with affection for WHU
Chen Dongsheng was born and raised in Tianmen city, Hubei province in 1957. He attended Wuhan University in 1979 and majored in political economics. He was one of the 59 students enrolled in the economic school that year. Chen Dongsheng met Mao Zhenhua at WHU in his grade, while Tian Yuan was a postgraduate at that time.
The “Three Musketeers” of “WHU group”, from left to right are Tian Yuan, Chen Dongsheng and Mao Zhenhua
Nearly forty years after his graduation, Chen Dongsheng still remembers several details of his student life. Recalling some of his precious memories in WHU, he recounted, “We used to bring stools for movies here in Meiyuan field, even when it snowed or rained, we would still sit there holding umbrellas. Time flies, and it’s now been over 30 years.”
When studying at WHU, Chen Dongsheng explored every corner of the campus—WHU’s Garden of Ethan, the virgin cedar forest and the square in Fengyuan Campus where they studied peacefully. He nostalgically remembered WHU as an ideal paradise for all young students like him.
In the final semester of his college years, Chen Dongsheng set up a philosophical society with his roommates—the Peripateticism. They would go to Mount Mo nearly every weekend, discussing academic issues and exchanging their opinions on contemporary issues. This peripatetic organization still influences young students even after 30 years.
Chen Dongsheng’s “shi”
Before his graduation from WHU, Chen Dongsheng carved the character “shi” (which means “start” in Chinese) on a huge rock on the top of Luojia Hill, indicating the beginning of his journey.
Starting the first step
After he graduated from college, Chen Dongsheng became a researcher in the Ministry of Foreign Trade and Economic Cooperation. In 1988, 35-year-old Chen Dongsheng was appointed the executive chief editor of the journal Management World. He initiated the “Top 500 Chinese Enterprises” ranking in the Management World journal, which is the first of its kind in China.
In 1992, after Teng Hsiao-ping delivered his famous Tour to the south speech, Chen Dongsheng resigned from his position and started his enterprise. In the same year, his enterprise applied for two licenses—one for insurance and the other for auction. But only the latter got approved, which paved way for the China Guardian, the first Chinese auction company established on May 18th, 1993.
Guardian - the first Chinese auction company. Chen Dongsheng (in the middle) with his partners in the inauguration ceremony
“The best place in Beijing was the Great Wall Hotel in Jianguo Road, so I rented four rooms as office, and paid 85 dollars per day. But I knew nothing about auctions at the very beginning. I was like an amateur who came into this business by chance, and sat in the hotel watching dollars go down the drain.”, he recalled.
China Guardian couldn’t make profit in the initial years so he and his staff members were under great pressure.
Chen Dongsheng (in the middle) established ZJS Express with his brothers Chen Ping (left) and Chen Xianbao (right)
Fortunately, the China Guardian turned into a profitable business and things were running successfully. ZJS Express was established in 1994 and Taikang Life was approved by the People’s Bank on August 22nd, 1996.
WHU alumni’s “big brother”
Chen Dongsheng has been a generous sponsor for his alma mater-WHU for decades. He advocated to set up WHU alumni association, funds and scholarships to help WHU students. Thus he is regarded as the “big brother” among WHU alumni.
In May 9th, 2015, the Wanlin Museum opened to the public after two years of construction. This museum, funded by Chen Dongsheng during WHU’s 120th anniversary, is the first art museum sponsored by an individual in China. The museum and its collections worth 100 million RMB, and is also one of the largest single donation made by any alumni in China. The Wanlin Museum was named after Chen Dongsheng’s father Chen Wanlin.
“I don’t live in a luxurious mansion; I still drive my old Audi 2.4; I don’t have spare money to invest when my friends come to me with great ideas; but I’d love to donate my property to WHU, because I still remember the time when I was an immature young student in WHU. WHU taught me a lot, and I should do something in return.” Chen Dongsheng admitted that the donation is from his personal savings and not from his companies’ fund.
“According to statistics, Harvard has 2964 billionaire alumni, thus it has an education fund of 30 billion dollars.” Chen Dongsheng illustrated the importance of alumni donation in the 2nd Alumni Forum in 2015, and he also expressed his willingness to help brilliant young students who intend to start an enterprise.
In May 2016, the Luojia Angel Innovation Fund was established by Chen Dongsheng, Tao Chuang, et al, the total value of which has reached 150 million RMB. Until now, this fund has invested in 10 high-tech companies, among which 6 are run by WHU graduates
The spirit of craftsmanship
In the 3rd Alumni Forum held on November 29th, 2016, Chen Dongsheng delivered a keynote speech on “the spirit of craftsmanship”.
Chen Dongsheng delivering his keynote at the 3rd Alumni Forum
He illustrated it with the fact that he spent nearly 20 years in life insurance which won his company the first foothold in life insurance market.
“Imitation is the best innovation,” he remarks his secret to success. During his time at Management World, Chen Dongsheng got to study the business world. So, he analyzed the business models used by leading multinationals like Sotheby's (the leading auction company in the world), AXA (the largest insurance company in the world), FedEx, UPS and DHL (the logistic giants) and successfully implemented them in China.
In April 2002, Taikang Life launched a family insurance product in China, which was different from the normal policy which covers only one person. This breakthrough earned Taikang 22 million RMB in the next two months.
His goal was to build a world class enterprise and he has come a long way from the frontier industry he pioneered and developed. He will most certainly achieve his goal soon, setting an example for the next generation of brilliant WHU graduates.
Photo by Jin Xin/Tai Kang Life/China Guardian Auction, and the internet.
Edited by Tang Yedan, Raju Maskey, Sun Jingyi, Wu Siying, Edmund Wai Man Lai and Hu Sijia