The entrepreneurship world of the twentieth century was very much dominated by men, and this was especially so in China. One woman who went against the grain is Chen Lihua – a women who achieved remarkable success in her field and was also able to give back considerably to her community.Born in Beijing to a poor family, Chen Lihua is now the world’s richest self-made woman.
Like many other poor Han nationals, she reached high school before dropping out due to lack of money. Amongst mounting pressure to work and contribute to the family budget, her strong business sense led her to set up her own furniture maintenance business back in 1976.
Chen Lihua came from a poor family, but this did not stop her from testing the limits of her capabilities. In 1982 the determined young woman journeyed to Hong Kong to see what trade and investment opportunities awaited her. Nearly a decade later, her return to Beijing signaled the start of her climb to real and lasting success with a new venture: the Fu Wah International Group which initially dealt with residential housing projects. Under her careful management, Fu Wah expanded rapidly and became an industrial investment powerhouse that handles both construction and operational duties of shopping malls, office buildings, upscale hotels, apartments, clubhouses and many more. Fu Wah now has interests in areas apart from real estate and commerce such as tourism and catering, and has opened up branch offices in Australia and other countries. Her Chang An club enjoys a prime spot in one of the Beijing’s most prestigious locales. Chen Lihua’s current net worth of over 1 billion dollars mainly comes from the success of Fu Wah.
She married Chi Zhongrui, an actor who was ten years younger to her, but the union did not prove to be long lasting and the couple separated. Chen Lihua has three children – two daughters and one son who are now, as adults, based in and work in Hong Kong. Her children are very fond of and close to her and have proved to be her psychological and financial mainstays. Despite her impressive net worth, her children nonetheless provide her with financial support that she is free to use for her philanthropic pursuits.
Interviews will have Chen Lihua saying how important her role as a mother is – to her own children, to her business and to her country. She sees motherhood as an obligation well beyond her own children – which stems from a huge amount of love, respect and sense of duty she got from her own mother. “My mother’s blood runs through my own veins and therefore I have a filial obligation to comport myself with grace and determination throughout life to honor her,” she has said. “My duties as a loving mother also apply to my country, society and employees as well, as it all boils down to one word – loyalty.” This sense of obligation to both the private and public spheres can perhaps be the factor to which we attribute her success in life as a beloved mother, a caring employer and a productive Chinese nation-builder.
Chen Lihua is not only an amazing entrepreneur, she is a very generous philanthropist and a key player in several of Beijing’s development projects. In 1999 she established the China Red Sandalwood Museum in Beijing – China’s first ever privately owned museum. The China Red Sandalwood Museum is home to more than 300 pieces of antique furniture and artwork that dates as far back as the Ming and Qing dynasties, lovingly collected over a span of two decades by Chen Lihua and her group.
Her determination to support the dying art of Chinese sandalwood carving and uplift China in the eyes of other countries is a personal one. As a child, she had spent many a time marveling at the ancient city gates of old Beijing and ruminated on how this image could also be passed on to China’s descendants and future generations. This propelled her to create the museum that is not only a testament to China’s rich art culture but also a way for the current and future generations to stay in touch with their roots.
Chen Lihua has reaped many accolades in recognition of her astoundingly successful work and contribution in both the global business and art spheres. Her successes in the field of business and the arts earned her an honorary doctorate in the humanities from Savannah College of Art and Design. She is among the movers and shakers in the 400 Richest Chinese list according to Forbes.com. In 2012, she was named as the second-richest woman in China as per their Hurun Rich List. Not only that, but Time.com also dedicated a spot to her in their list of 100 most influential people in the world.
Those who have had the opportunity to meet the unassuming Madame Chen say that despite her success, she remains to be a very humble person with a genuine desire to do good to her beloved China – and for humanity in general. “I should be responsible for everybody around me. It is only a natural thing to give money to those most in need,” she has been quoted to say. Apart from the China Red Sandalwood Museum, she has been a steady contributor to a variety of poverty and disaster relief programs. Coming from a poor family, she understands the plight of the needy and has pledged millions in supporting the education of those who would not have had the opportunity otherwise.
Her humble upbringing has led her to live a life away from the spotlight as per her preference, but she is still very good in being able to direct the media to her causes and get powerful officials and politicians such as Jia Qinglin, Li Ruihuan and many others to give their pledge of support to her.
Now in her seventies, Chen Lihua has yet to show signs of stepping down from her role as a patron of the arts and a business force. “If time allows me, I will continue to make the 72 memorial archways of the old Beijing and I would then love to be the doorman for the old city of Beijing,” says the inimitable Madame Chen. She is living proof that when a woman puts her mind to it, she can succeed in both business and in achieving her personal aspirations on a national and even global platform. With determination and the intent to do good, she has made a name for herself as a person who is able to rise to the top of the business ladder while still keeping true to her socio-civic duty of helping her fellow citizens. Truly, Madame Chen is both an inspired and inspiring woman worth looking up to.
Helpful links about Chen Lihua: