Inspire

I don’t have a job, I have a mission

Tech entrepreneur ShaoLan writes about how understanding a culture leads to understanding its people.

At 24, while living in my native Taiwan, I co-founded a tech startup that grew from just two of us to over 250 people in the span of six years, becoming one of the largest internet tech companies in Taiwan. I felt on top of the world, but I was working a lot—too much. And after years of long days and late nights, I knew something had to change. But instead of losing myself in a feeling of failure, I invested in myself. I made a life-changing move to London, where my children and my new company, Chineasy, were all born.

I didn’t know it at the time, but London would become my home. And raising my children MuLan and MuAn there would become my greatest inspiration. As a mother, I always look for ways to love, support, and inspire my kids, just like my parents did for me. One of my most treasured memories is my mother showing me the shape and form—the beauty—of Chinese characters. Since I was very young I saw her drawing calligraphy, going from total beginner to master. (It only took her 30 years to become amazing.)

Chinese language is made up of a series of characters. Characters are symbols, and each symbol has a historic meaning that’s deeply rooted in our culture. Since the day my children were born, I spoke Chinese with them to try and help them understand where they came from. But as they got older and realized most of their friends only spoke English, they started refusing to communicate in Chinese. That was devastating. Trying to teach them Chinese became torture—for them and for me! I searched and searched for a way to make learning the language fun, but I couldn’t find one. So, I decided to create my own. 

ShaoLan's mother's hand-drawn ancient poem on a beautiful, traditional scroll
ShaoLan analyzing the building blocks of the Chinese language
ShaoLan analyzing the building blocks of the Chinese language

Many people think the Chinese language is as impenetrable as the Great Wall. But the Chinese language is like building blocks—learning a set of core characters is the basis for learning them all. I developed a system that transforms Chinese characters into illustrations to make these building blocks easy to remember. And that’s where the name came from: Chineasy. As my children learned Chinese and about their culture, I realized Chineasy wasn’t just about learning the language. It was also about creating cultural understanding that brings together the East and the West.

Our future depends on our ability to connect the people of the East and West and bring about a mutual understanding of each other’s lives, ambitions, and traditions. China’s population continues to rise, and their global influence as an economic superpower is growing as well. A peaceful and productive relationship demands true and meaningful appreciation and empathy. And the surest way to gain a deep understanding of Chinese culture—of any culture, really—is through language. That’s ultimately why I created Chineasy. It’s a simple, beautiful, and easy way to learn Chinese and connect the two sides of the world—one symbol at a time.

This character depicts the shape of a flame. "Fire" is a common theme in Chinese mythology; there was a hierarchy of gods in charge of fire. Two fires together mean "burning hot." Repeat it three times, and you have "roaring fire"! When this character is used in a medical context, it means "inflammation." This makes perfect sense, because the Latin root of "inflammation" is inflammare, meaning, "to set alight."
In oracle-bone inscriptions (an early form of Chinese writing that was etched onto animal bones or pieces of turtle shell and then used for divination), this character depicted three mountain peaks. These peaks are still evident in the three vertical lines in the present form of the character.

Volcano

The written Chinese language is kind of like building blocks. A volcano is a mountain with fire-like hot lava bubbling under the surface. Put the characters for fire and mountain together and you get volcano.

East-to-West; person-to-person

Three hundred million Chinese people are learning English as a second language right at this moment. How many of us are trying to learn Chinese? In the age of AI, a machine may allow you to translate language, but it can never replace the true understanding, culture appreciation, and human connection that comes with speaking a new language.

When we learn in a singular way we don’t engage the imagination, and we fail to build skills in problem-solving. As children are brought up, they learn a two-dimensional way of thinking and create a fixed mindset. Over time this way of seeing gets distilled to a worldview of black or white, left or right, and in my case, East or West.

I believe we must now put our energy into an ever-expansive growth mindset. We aim to bridge the gap between the East and the West by helping people understand each other culturally. Language can be the first step.

With cultural understanding, we can build meaningful personal connections. We are all human. It doesn’t matter our shape or form or race or sex, we all want to be appreciated. We all want to be able to hug, hold hands, look into each other’s eyes, and say, “I understand you; I appreciate you.”