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.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (9)—Crafting a History

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
[b ]孫子兵法
[a] 武蔵
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.

Crafting a History
[c] Comfortable pillow (not log)
 So Sima Guang became one with the text, sleeping when he could on his log-pillow and channeling the vision for a monumental work of history and management that he had articulated before all of his plans fell apart with Yingzong’s death in 1067. In those heady days of almost-power in the mid-1060s, Sima produced a series of memorials to the throne (think of these as elaborate and literary policy memos of a kind unknown in government or business today, even in China). In one of those memorials, called “Five Principles,” Sima reviewed the complete span of Chinese history, noting that there had only been five centuries of stability during the past 1700 years. Those of us seeking management lessons in the great text might want ask the question: why would Sima Guang spend twenty years carefully explaining the ins-and-outs of government policy, knowing that fully two-thirds of the book would contain flawed examples of damaged states?

[d] Tang c. 700
[e] Five Dynasties (907-959)
No worries. Sima knew something that every good manager (and historian) has known. A lot can be learned from bad examples—sometimes more than any number of shining pictures of managerial perfection could ever teach. What is more, he understood that not even the periods of unity were unproblematic. All he had to do was look around. He was living during a time that he knew historians would consider a unified period. A fairly strong emperor was on the throne, and he ruled over a considerable territory—not as vast as the Tang (618-906) before it, but much larger than the little states in the north and south that made up the Five Dynasties (907-959), right before his time. For over a century, the Song dynasty government had achieved solid rule. Still, all it took was a peek under the “unity” façade to see that infighting was prevalent at court, and that what seemed like half the talent in the empire had moved away from the capital in a fit of pique. This unity stuff, he reasoned, might be overrated, at least when it comes to management lessons.
And then there was the most convincing reason of all. If history is to be understood—if the flow and tensions of one period are to be understood in the next—the narrative should not be chopped up into little blocks that make sustained understanding impossible. That was how Sima saw the writing before his time—as so many slices of time (carved by the big turkey knife of dynastic history, whether the “dynasty” lasted 300 years or just thirty). Worse yet, these same hunks of time and space were hacked further into subsections dealing with powerful individuals, influential families, and scattered points of geography. You may recall what Sima had to say about that. Those “standard” histories were jumbles of verbiage, and even specialists struggled to find the story and the lessons. How could anyone garner lessons from them?
[g] History of the Southern Qi
Since my youth, I have perused the various histories; it appears that in the standard historical form, the text's characters are diffuse—although learned specialists read them time and again, they cannot understand them as a whole.  It is still more difficult for the emperor, having myriad daily concerns but desiring to know comprehensively the gains and losses of past events. 

But what if a talented scholar were to take all of those mangled bits of history and management, piecing them back together into a satisfying whole that created a sense of continuity for readers? That was the model that many scholars had shared for the great historical works of the long distant past—the era surrounding Confucius’s time, when philosophers were kings’ (advisors) and big ideas rioted upon the earth. In those days—already being transformed in the minds of Sima and his fellows into “mythistory”—history was written in chronicle form. Unlike Europe, the chronicle was seen as the very highest form of historical writing in China. Sima’s ambitions were great; he was going to write a chronicle, and it was going to change everything.
[h] History of the Northern Qi
I have always desired to compile, roughly following the form of the classical histories a chronological account entitled Comprehensive Records beginning with the Warring States and continuing to the Five Dynasties [a period of almost 1500 years].  It would select from books other than the standard histories, and concern the state's flourishing and decline, with its consequences for the people's good and ill fortune.  It will include those events that it is necessary for rulers to know—good can then be emulated, and evil shunned.

[i] Northern Song landscape
The emperors (both father and son, Yingzong and Shenzong) liked this idea very much. After Yingzong died, and even after Sima had left the capital for Luoyang, the new emperor provided him with support and more than a little pestering. Like the avid reader of a riveting book series—just waiting for the next one to be published—Shenzong was said to have sent express messengers repeatedly to Luoyang to ask how the work was coming along. This increased the pressure on Sima, and drove him to even more intense work, as well as nights spent tossing and turning on the log-pillow. Although there was still some time for friends, plum wine, and delicacies, he became painfully aware that he was under deadline, and accountable to two of the strictest bosses one could ever have—the emperor…and death.

[j] Northern Song vase
You see, Sima was getting up there. As the emperor sent his minions to call throughout the 1070s and into the 1080s, Sima was turning fifty-five, sixty, and then sixty-five. All the while, what was holding up our author was his desire for a kind of narrative perfection that only a talented student of management can understand. It was an intricate balance of detail and instruction, information and lesson. He was racing against the clock of life, but he thought always of his audience—the emperor and his highest officials. The entire project flows out of Sima Guang’s “teaching experience,” stretching back to his time as an imperial tutor in the capital. Blending a chronicle of historical events with multilayered commentary, Sima Guang sought to create a book capable of use by perceptive sovereigns in the present and future, not merely a recitation of events in a long history. He sought to teach imperial management through the lessons of more than ten centuries of history. No one had ever achieved this before—not even close.

[k] Comprehensive Mirror revisions
While his assistants compiled texts from over 300 sources from earlier Chinese history, he managed the project and provided guidance about his goals. When his assistants finally completed the “long draft,” however, the work was all—or mostly—his alone (a compatriot and scholar, Fan Zuyu, remained an extraordinary help throughout the process). This was no simple task of “light revision”—pen in hand, correcting typos. It was an ocean of work. One small anecdote should give a sense of the challenge he faced in making a book that leaders would read and use for centuries. Sima edited the “long draft” of the Tang dynasty sections from 600 “chapters” (twice as long as the entire Comprehensive Mirror…or bordering on 20,000 pages) to eighty. Those 600 chapters had filled two rooms in his home in Luoyang. It required all of the intellectual talents that Sima had cultivated from the time he was a studious child. It was exhausting, and required all of his mental energy to keep the narrative focus on the lessons of the past and the instruction of later rulers. Like a fine craftsman, he measured twice, and cut once, achieving in the process a set of teachings that would be read and used by leaders from the current emperor to even the Hunan province peasant son who would “rule” China in the twentieth century.

[l] Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling
And then he was done. Sima Guang submitted the completed Comprehensive Mirror to the throne in 1085, and wrote in the accompanying memorial that he had sapped all of his intellectual strength in compiling it. It was a work of such prodigious breadth and depth that many of his predecessors had only dreamed of compiling anything like it, so burdened were they by official positions in their later years. When it was finished, it covered 1,362 years of China’s past, from 403 BCE to CE 959—right up to the beginning of Sima’s own dynasty (which no sensible Chinese history would cover, since it was still considered “politics,” and not yet “history”). The Comprehensive Mirror’s 294 “chapters” are a powerful combination of event, commentary, and enormous swaths of material quoted from over three hundred fragmented sources, many of which have since been lost. It is the world’s greatest management book, a masterful narrative showing the workings of administration at the highest level—a text that would influence China’s leaders right down to the present. It is a work that has endured.

[m] Northern Song imperial tombs
As for Sima, enduring was the last thing on his mind in January of 1085. He was old and exhausted, and might as well have imagined a Shenzong/Luoyang twist on the words of Prospero, six hundred years and half a world away:

Sir, I invite your Highness and your train
To my poor cell, where you shall take your rest
For this one night; which, part of it, I’ll waste
With such discourse as, I not doubt, shall make it
Go quick away—the story of my life,
And the particular accidents gone by
Since I came to this isle…
…And thence retire me to my Milan, where
Every third thought shall be my grave.[1]

The trail had grown cold; Sima was done.

And then everything changed…again.

[1] The Tempest V.i, 300-311

Monday, April 18
Everything changed, and Sima used his flagging strength to pick up a big rock, and…
Stay tuned.

No comments:

Post a Comment