China’s richest man, Nongfu Spring billionaire Zhong Shanshan – who is the bottled water and pharmaceuticals entrepreneur that’s wealthier than Jack Ma?

Zhong Shanshan, China’s richest man and the founder of Nongfu Spring. Photo: Nongfu Spring
Zhong Shanshan, chairman of Nongfu Spring and owner of Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, currently holds the title of China’s richest man. The 66-year-old holds a fortune worth US$68.5 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index, and was briefly even Asia’s richest person – dethroning India’s Mukesh Ambani earlier this year.
While many would expect China’s richest man to come from the IT industry, Zhong has made his fortune from bottled water and pharmacy companies. One thing he shares with many of the world’s billionaires is that his journey to the top was not always smooth sailing – Zhong had to draw on his tenacity and perseverance to achieve all he has to date. 

So how did he do it?

Zhong Shanshan made a fortune from bottled water and pharmaceuticals. Photo: @newmoney_gr/Instagram

Zhong was born in Hangzhou in 1954 and had to drop out of junior school during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-76 due to his family’s poverty. He ended up doing construction work to help his family make ends meet. 

In 1977, Zhong took the college entrance examination and, after failing the first time, enrolled at the Zhejiang Radio & TV University where he completed his degree and worked at the same time. 


From 1984, he was a reporter with Zhejiang Daily where he interviewed more than 500 self-made businessmen. Writing about entrepreneurship kick-started a dream to establish his own business. 

In 1988, Zhong moved to Hainan island off the coast of southern China to start a business growing first mushrooms, then prawns and finally turtles – also eaten in China. In between, he also worked as a sales agent for Wahaha drinks company, before founding Nongfu Spring in 1996. 
Nongfu Spring water in a supermarket in China’s Henan province. Photo: AFP

In 1999, Zhong stopped removing natural minerals from its water. This was news in China, a country where most bottled water has traditionally been distilled, despite science telling us this is not the best choice for our health. Instead, he concentrated on emphasising the benefits of natural water.

In 2007, Zhong succeeded in establishing the idea that “weak alkaline water” can improve your health, and in 2008, he branded Nongfu Spring as helping to connect consumers with nature through their water.

Zhong Shanshan, the founder of Nongfu Spring. Photo: Sina Weibo

However over the next few years, Zhong was hit by several controversies with the media questioning the quality of his water and highlighting inedible ingredients found in Nongfu Spring. 

Despite these setbacks, Nongfu Spring’s share of the bottled water market increased steadily, reaching 28.3 per cent in 2018, making it the most popular brand. The company reported a revenue of US$3.5 billion in 2019 and made its market debut in late 2020 on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange, surging 85 per cent to HK$39.80 from its IPO price of HK21.50. 

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  • He also owns Beijing Wantai Biological Pharmacy Enterprise, and is now worth US$68.5 billion, according to Bloomberg’s Billionaires Index
  • Zhong was briefly Asia’s richest person, ranked above Mukesh Ambani, after Nongfu’s IPO in late 2020