Lu Ban’s Axe and Working with Your Chinese Suppliers

It is nearly impossible to build any kind of hardware these days without at some point in the process dealing with China — Chinese suppliers, and so by extension Chinese culture. Difficulties can be as simple as the usual inconvenience of everything stopping for weeks up to and after Chinese New Year, or engineers that you know to be otherwise reasonably competent simply choosing not to bring up glaring and obvious problems. Having encountered my share of Western hardware entrepreneurs on the verge of a breakdown, and just as many flummoxed Chinese bosses completely unable to see exactly why they’re so upset, I thought I’d try to offer at least a little insight into one of the many issues that comes up.

Nearly any school child in the world will be able to tell you whom they were taught invented the lightbulb, the telephone, the radio transmitter. Those same children will usually be able to tell you of at least a few Chinese inventions as well — gunpowder, paper, the compass etc. But with one key difference, even the Chinese children are unlikely to be able to credit even a group of people for their invention let alone a single (usually misattributed) individual.

China does not really have an Edison, or Tesla, or Bell — oh we’ve had people as brilliant, but they are not celebrated in quite the same way for cultural reasons. If you were to do an alternate history of China where we went through the Industrial Revolution first, you’d want to split the timeline around Mozi (墨子). The Mohists (followers of Mozi) had advanced siege engine design, schools of logic, mathematics and theory for the physical sciences. much of the same foundation that set the West on its particular trajectory. In the end, Confucian ideals won out and China became a culture that celebrated scholarship over ingenuity (to vastly oversimplify things).

Even our respective terms for engineer reflect this. The word engineer (Latin ingeniator) is derived from the Latin words ingeniare (“to contrive, devise”) and ingenium (“cleverness”). Yet in Chinese 工程师, the first character for engineer in Chinese is the carpenters square 工. He or she is a simple worker (工人 literally “Work Person”). Even now, engineers are not held in anywhere near the same regard in China as they are in the West.

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Source Parts on TaoBao: An Insider’s Guide

For hardware aficionados and Makers, trips to Shenzhen’s Huaqiangbei have become something of a pilgrimage. While Huaqiangbei is a tremendous and still active resource, increasingly both Chinese and foreign hardware developers do their sourcing for components on TaoBao. The selection is vastly greater and with delivery times rarely over 48 hours and frequently under 24 hours for local purchases it fits in nicely with the high-speed pace of Shenzhen’s hardware ecosystem.

For overseas buyers, while the cost of Taobao is comparable to, or slightly less than AliExpress and Chinese online stores, the selection is again, many, many times the size. Learning how to effectively source parts from Taobao will be both entertaining and empowering.

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