From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
*Occasionally I will leave a long post up for thirty-six hours, and post a shorter entry at noon the next day.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (11)—Bustin' Stuff

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
[a] Tangut Art of War
[b] Parisian Art of War
This month's main entries (entitled “Breaking the Vessel”) will chronicle an author and a book—Sima Guang (1019-1086) and the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling, which was submitted to the (Northern) Song dynasty throne in what we in the West call January of 1085. I like to say that this book is the missing piece in management education, during which MBA students read carefully through translations of the Art of War and then seem to think that they understand Chinese management thought. (Good luck with that, pardner). I like to say that Sunzi (Sun-tzu) is “lunch” and the Comprehensive Mirror is “what comes next—it’s what’s for supper.”  It is essential reading for everyone at any level of management—from parent and foreman to ruler of the world (and everything in between). The problem is that it is 10,000 pages long (I am not kidding) and is in Chinese—“medieval” Chinese, at that. That is where I come in. I want to help you. 
Welcome. 歡迎. I have been waiting for you.

Bustin' Stuff
[c] Remonstrance
Sima fled back to Luoyang. He was not comfortable with being called "prime minister," and was decidedly ambivalent about asserting political power after almost two decades in plush, self-imposed exile. Still, in the months that followed,  the empress dowager frequently sent requests for help or clarification. Sima was happy to provide a bit of advice during this tentative stage of political transition. The earliest—and arguably best—advice he gave came soon after he returned to Luoyang in the third lunar month of 1085. He urged the empress dowager to "open the paths of remonstrance." This is a theme that appears throughout the Comprehensive Mirror and is, in itself, the single-most powerful management technique that can be learned from the best management text ever written. 

[d] Remonstrance
Open the paths of remonstrance. One can go so far as to say that "remonstrance" is the "rock that breaks the vessel," saving the organization. I will be devoting an entire essay the length of "Breaking the Vessel" to that very subject this summer, but suffice it to say here, that remonstrance requires the "lower ranking" person in a hierarchy to offer advice and criticism to the "higher ranking" person. It is complicated, even when just two people are involved (child criticizes parent; student implores teacher to change). Imagine how challenging it is for an entire government.

[e] Disputation
Sima Guang argued that it is always necessary, and that organizations (and governments) that cannot accept critiques will fail. He and the empress dowager both felt that the reform program had failed, and Sima's "first step" was to open the channels of communication—from bottom to top. That is the key to remonstrance. Make sure the underling can challenge the boss, and the latent power of the organization will become clear. In a time of repressed and secretive bureaucracy, it was very good advice. Quite tame, even.

[f] Harmony
So far, so...not bad. The greater challenge was that the entire governmental machinery, even in the best of times, was not geared toward smooth operation of a system that empowers underlings. And these were hardly the best of times. It wasn't just Shenzong's death in 1085 that stifled the momentum of the reform program. Wang Anshi had only lasted in office until 1076 before retiring, frustrated and hemmed in, as he saw it. 

As anyone who studies politics and history knows, however, that the reform program wasn't just made up of Emperor Shenzong and Wang Anshi. The "reformers" were a strong and well-placed group of politically adept partisans who were able to effect a number of significant reforms in the 1070s. Some of the New Laws had become embedded over the course of a decade and a half, and were showing signs of "institutionalization." From the perspective of the equally adept partisans on the conservative side, there was barely time left to mute the reforms before they became a lasting part of Song dynasty policy. In short, there was urgency on both sides. The reformers—stung by setbacks to the program and then isolated by Shenzong's death—sought to hold on; the conservatives sought to undo the program before it was government. If this doesn't sound familiar to American readers, you need to read the papers or watch the news.

[g] Service
Still, "opening the paths of remonstrance" wouldn't cut it on its own, and Sima knew as much. The time had come for a decision, and he cast his lot with government service. He would work himself to death in high office.  The careful student of biography should take a deep breath here. Many of us would like to think that such a situation—the choice made freely, and without the pressure of obligation or financial need—might lead an individual toward selfless decision-making for the good of everyone. Many of us have read enough biography—or lived long enough to watch decades of news reports—that we know it doesn't always work this way. Enormous political power, debilitating ailments, and impending death can be a dangerous combination for politics. It was precisely this intersection of forces and opportunities that Sima Guang found midway through 1085.

[h] Wang man
He was in, and the unambiguously good advice with which he started suddenly began to get...well, ambiguous. Even "remonstrance" became problematic, because the conservative clique sought to use it to attack its enemies and re-people the bureaucracy with members from "their side." That was not all. While Sima had always been respectful of the emperor, and mostly civil with Wang Anshi—even through the harshest disappointments he felt in the 1070s—the tone changed abruptly, and viciously. Sima set up Wang (let us not forget that he had been out of office for close to a decade by this time) as the straw man in a series of attacks in public memorials meant, it appears, to "soften up" public opinion. These diatribes are accurately recorded by Sima's friend and colleague, Fan Zuyu, in the incomparable Continuation of the Comprehensive Mirror

In them Wang is vilified, and Sima comes dangerously close to an attack on the now dead emperor:
He did what he wanted to do, without even the ruler being able to prevent him...He rewarded sycophants and shoved critics into the ditch...He was thoughtless and reckless...causing the bodies of myriad soldiers to litter the fields, abandoning equipment and personnel in faraway lands.
[i] Perspective
By the time he had written these attacks, it was as though Sima was drunk with power and revenge. He set himself up as the anti-Wang, the patron saint of an older, more sane, and more refined order. Historians have targeted a number of points at which it seems that Sima's long-sturdy clarity and rationality slipped away. I myself point to somewhere around June of 1085. One historian has called him, from this period on, "tragically quixotic." He was in obvious physical decline, and seemed to be losing his perspective along with his health. As the chief councilor to the empress dowager, he advocated a complete dismantling of the reform program. 

Even some of his allies from the long exile in Luoyang were baffled when he advocated overturning even some of the obviously "successful" reforms, and quietly urged him to check his actions. The overturning continued unabated, but it didn't get truly "ugly" until the calls for change were followed by what can only be called a purge of reformers. No amount of rhetoric could change the fact that the Song state was a vast bureaucracy, and political ideas only mattered to the extent that people could put them into practice. 

The purge took a year, and the Song government looked decidedly different by the early months of 1086. A few reformers (at least one of a quite sinister mien) hung on, but, even Sima's fellow conservatives could not hold the line of what was beginning to look like old-fashioned "payback" rather than "re-reform."

[j] Nuance
Even his closest allies were concerned. Many conservatives had begun to see the same kind of nuance and blending of old and new that is highlighted in any careful reading of the Comprehensive Mirror. Twelve months before, he was the consummate historian, interpreting the shadings of the past for readers who sought to understand just how complicated and subtle life could be—a world Sima had masterfully narrated without simple good and evil, hero and villain. Suddenly, though, Sima Guang had become the clunky, unsubtle bull-in-the-China-shop he had criticized and out-thought for the last sixty years, ever since he used his subtle apprehension of text and world to do the right thing for a drowning child.
It was as though Sima Guang had forgotten just about everything he had ever taught and written.

And then he died.

[k] Loss
The abolition of the reform program continued, and the next forty years of the dynasty's fortunes would be decidedly problematic. The reformers regained power in the 1090s, and purged their enemies. And while the factions struggled in Kaifeng, the northern forces to the east and west kept building their power. By 1126, they would sweep down, capture the imperial family, and drive the court southward, occupying the traditional heartland of Chinese power for the next two centuries. The rest of the Song dynasty (now called the "Southern Song" because its capital was based in the southern city of Hangzhou) was—at least in territorial terms—a fragment of the dynasty's original scope. For the next seven hundred years, China would live through long periods of dominance by "foreign" powers. Sima Guang, the historian, would have understood, and would likely have stated the importance of challenging periods and even negative examples for the study of history's management lessons.

[l] Sima Tomb
For his part, Sima Guang was mourned by both his allies and his opponents. He had managed, at least in the local popular imagination, to side with "the people," who lacked a voice in the large-scale movements of Chinese government policy. At least one—perhaps apocryphal—story has it that the whole country mourned, and that the streets of Kaifeng were so thick with mourners that the funeral could not proceed.[1]  A number of historians have described even the problematic last year of his life as one devoted completely to service, and a high point in the government of the era. It was better than what followed.

[m] Large life
The story was "read" by his supporters as one of exilic triumph. Sima Guang had moved, in that most optimistic of perspectives (happily ignorant of the intense factional backlashes that would cripple the Song dynasty government) from personal critiques to public remonstrance, followed by public rebuke and voluntary exile. At the last moment, he had "succeeded," ultimately in grasping the reigns of government and achieving vindication in the year before his death.

It was not an uncontested reading, to be sure, and both scholars and students have struggled to resolve the greatness of the Comprehensive Mirror with the challenges presented by his political actions in the year before his death. Is he to be admired, reviled, or something-in-between?

What can we make of a "messy" and very human picture of greatness? Can those words even go together?

[1] Songshi [336], 10,760

Monday, April 25
Managing History
Nine hundred years later, nothing is resolved. The book is iconic and the man is problematic. Whatever happened to easy, "heroic" narratives? Do we have to figure this out for ourselves? And how can we learn from the lessons of the past? What is a manager to do?


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