Alibaba’s $15 billion global R&D push is named after a legendary Indian monk from centuries ago

Think like a Zen master.
Think like a Zen master.
Image: Reuters/Stringer
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Earlier this week, China’s e-commerce giant Alibaba announced that the company will invest $15 billion in R&D projects in the next five years and open seven tech labs across the globe—an initiative it’s calling DAMO Academy.

DAMO is a mouthful that stands for “Discovery, Adventure, Momentum, and Outlook,” and highlights Alibaba’s ambition to turn itself into a global tech giant in the same league as the likes of Google and Microsoft. The Chinese name of the R&D push, however, tells something about founder Jack Ma’s obsession with martial arts.

A portrait of Bodhidharma by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
A portrait of Bodhidharma by Japanese artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi.
Image: Public domain

DAMO is written 达摩 in Chinese. That’s the Chinese name of Dharma, or Bodhidharma, a prince-turned-Buddhist monk from India, who is traditionally credited as the transmitter of Zen Buddhism to China in the 5th century. Zen Buddhism is then said to have inspired the martial arts practiced by the monks in China’s famous Shaolin monastery.

Unveiling the DAMO program in a speech (link in Chinese) to an audience of thousands in Hangzhou, Alibaba’s hometown, Jack Ma said he came up with the name just two weeks ago in a call with the company’s head of human resources. He said DAMO might sound a bit weird—but so is Google and Intel. “The more you read it… the more you’ll like it,” he said.

Ma is a known fan of Chinese martial arts. The 52-year-old earlier this year started giving tai chi classes to fellow entrepreneurs for $15,000 for six sessions. For years, he was also a loyal client of self-proclaimed qigong master Wang Lin—until the latter was charged with murder and later died in custody this February.

At Alibaba, every employee has a nickname for use within the company. And at least at high management levels, these names all come from martial arts fiction. Ma himself is nicknamed Feng Qing Yang, which roughly translate as “the wind blows briskly and lightly.” CEO Daniel Zhang is nicknamed Xiao Yao Zi, which means “free and unfettered man.” Both Feng Qing Yang and Xiao Yao Zi are formidable swordsmen from martial arts novels by Jin Yong.

Dharma also appears in the Jin Yong universe as a legendary figure who created secret kung fu techniques.