I found my self-help group through an Uber driver. In China, the car service’s drivers are often part-timers who have other occupations—hotel managers, entrepreneurs, housewives—each with his or her own reason for driving, but with the common desire of “going out and learning.” It’s an expression you hear often in cities or small towns across the country; in Chinese, the term “going out” can refer to traveling abroad, or simply going outside the home or family and into the real, tougher world.
This particular driver was particularly interested in “going out.” He told me that driving around the city allowed him to meet new people and have new experiences. “You seem like a curious person,” he told me. “You should come to my events. They’re full of people like you that like to learn about new things.” I wasn’t exactly sure what he meant by “events,” but after the short ride from People’s Square to Jing’An Temple we exchanged contact information on WeChat, a popular Chinese messaging app, and shortly thereafter I received a message about an event on what seemed like a talk on food and nutrition.
I wasn’t terribly interested in a class on nutrition, but from the driver’s WeChat profile I could see he was involved with daily events on an unusual mix of topics, ranging from investing to dating to weight loss. While these issues are sources of concern for many of us, in Shanghai they are the most important boxes to tick for anyone that wants to “succeed.” It’s common, in fact, to see online advertisements for workshops that offer similar help. Marriage agencies offer courses on dating mannerisms. On Douban, a popular social network platform, it’s easy to find emotional support meet-ups and study groups for young professionals on a variety of topics. I had attended a few in Beijing and Nanjing before, but this was the first time I had encountered one that seemed to cover all aspects of daily life. I was therefore curious to know the winning formula and decided to attend one of the talks the following week.
A self-help group’s diary reads “I will try my best to achieve what I want.” Photo: Yuebai Liu
The desire for self-actualization in a hyper-competitive society like China is strong. It’s also increasingly difficult as inequality continues rising. China’s income distribution is, in fact, among the worst in the world; China’s Gini coefficient for income, which is used to measure inequality, was 0.49 in 2012. The World Bank considers a coefficient above 0.40 to represent severe income inequality; by comparison, the United States is at 0.41 and Germany at 0.3.
The idea of self-development is not new, but a legacy of Confucian culture, where self-development is required to foster the development of others, and therefores create a more “harmonious” society. What is new, however, is that in today’s context, the wish for self-development is driven by the need to succeed. As Eric Hendriks, author of China’s Self-Help Industry: American Life Advice in China, puts it, “Chinese urbanites are driven by the fear of losing out,” which is also why driving an Uber car to “go out and learn” is not so different from going out and attending a class on nutrition. The self-help industry, with its Chicken Soup For The Soul books and motivational classes, offers help to those in fervent pursuit of happiness and well-being. Hendriks estimates that self-help books account for 34 percent of all printed books in China—a total revenue of about $3 billion.
The class was in a lane house in the Former French Concession. I met my Uber driver outside the main entrance. He went by An Di, an auspicious name that translates to “peaceful guide.” He spoke softly in a controlled manner, pronouncing every word slowly as if I would not understand. He carried a large calendar where he jotted down his daily tasks. “Everyone in the group has one. It helps us feel better,” he explained. He told me that his group has been renting the space for a year and that the membership has been growing steadily. “This is a place for self-development,” he said proudly as he showed me around the house, which mainly consisted of one large room with an open kitchen. It reminded me of a playroom, with tables and chairs scattered around, buckets of colored pencils, shelves of books, and sheets of white paper piled on tables.
An Di writing down his to-do list on his calendar. Photo: Yuebai Liu
The group was about 30 people, some regulars, some new. They were mostly in their 20s and 30s and worked in a variety of professions, from design to advertising to IT and e-commerce. Most attendees were women, but an increasing number of men are joining as well, An Di told me.
The events are organized by a man they call Brother White, who is something like the members’ life coach. They credit him with getting their lives on the right path, one on which they are healthier, happier, and generally better people. The events are aimed at helping others achieve this level of well-being. In the last year, they have started sister groups in six cities, and plan to start many more. Brother White, who lives in Taiwan, travels to Shanghai every month to give two or three talks. On his last visit, the guru opined on the future of the economy, and women.
The choice of topics is consistent with the varied books that filled the room’s bookshelves—predominantly motivational self-help books with titles like Define Yourself and Pain is What We Call Youth. I’ve seen books like these all over China. Chicken Soup For the Soul volumes can be found not only in bookstores and libraries, but also on streets near university campuses and train stations. Dale Carnegie’s How to Win Friends and Influence People is considered a classic in China, and John Gray’s Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus is sold at virtually every book vendor.