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.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

Living and Learning (10)—Patching the Vessel

Click here to go to section one of "Living and Learning."
Click below for the other "Living and Learning" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
The Emperor's Teacher—Chapter Two 
 During the month of June I will be posting segments of The Emperor's Teacher (the big business book that will rock the world). Chapter two is called "Living and Learning," and forms (along with chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel") the first section of a three-part book.
If you have read The Art of War, you have arrived at the doorstep. Still, no one ever managed anything in China having just read Sunzi (Sun-tzu), but don't despair. You are now ready for what comes next in leadership. Compiled nine-hundred years ago, it is the greatest management book ever written, and there are only two problems: (1) it is in "medieval" Chinese; (2) it is 10,000 pages long. No worries, though. That's what I am here for. I have been studying this stuff for thirty years, and I have been waiting for you. Welcome. 歡迎. 
Let's begin to study real Chinese management together.
[a] Patchwork  [RF]
After reading chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel," you will have some acquaintance with Sima Guang and the Comprehensive Mirror (資治通鑒). Now, it is time to consider how people learned "management" lessons in early China. From there, we will begin to tackle the heart of the management book in the rest of this summer's entries (July and August), which will deal with practical lessons from the Comprehensive Mirror.
Don't worry.  If you want to start here and loop back to chapter one (Breaking the Vessel) in due time, that is fine.  This chapter should stand on its own as a way of thinking about living and learning (and living) at any time and in any place.
Patching the Vessel

Knowing when to flow gently and when to unleash torrents—these can be useful skills in everyday life, as well as in leading organizations as complex as Chinese kingdoms. The arguments we have sampled from the Warring States period in the preceding posts would reverberate throughout Chinese history. In fact, they extend to this very day. People in China still think of many aspects of their lives (from rushing at work to relaxing in the park, not to mention—more insidiously—"keeping order") through the lenses of Confucian, Daoist, and even Legalist arguments.

The Warring States cast a very long shadow in China. More than a millennium after these great territorial and intellectual battles were fought, the period would find a great synthesizer in Sima Guang, the student of history who once tossed aside his book and picked up a rock. It's all there in chapter one, "Breaking the Vessel." In beginning his managerial and historical account with this period, Sima Guang was (to my mind) creating a way of patching the vessel—of thinking about just how to manage ourselves through the toughest periods we might encounter. Bickering and contention may have gotten more deadly over the centuries, but it would be hard to argue that there were many times and places in world history in which it was more prevalent than in the fourth and third centuries BCE in China.

The Warring States period provides a firm backdrop for the lessons that we will encounter from here on in The Emperor's Teacher. As we have seen, a plethora of little states slowly were swallowed up by bigger and bigger ones until there were only seven left. The better part of another century passed as those seven dwindled down to just two...and finally one. The first emperor of China (秦始皇帝) was triumphal for a short period of time, but the lessons of even his powerful integration of the realm go back to the warring, fighting, bickering states of the two centuries that preceded him. This was not lost on Sima Guang, who had powerful reasons to begin his historical and managerial opus right at the high point of the Warring States—right as things were starting to get exceedingly nasty.

Even then, he did not "telegraph" the outcome. Sima studied the Warring States period as a whole—from the early worries of Confucius and his followers to the pointed critiques of the Daoists and the ultimate, though very short-lived, "victory" of the Legalists. Although it could be argued that Sima "took sides—he was a scholar rooted in the Confucian tradition, after all—a great deal had changed in the thousand years since the Warring States contended for power. The stark contrasts between Confucian textual study and Daoist "non-action" had given way over the centuries to a blending of doctrines, a syncretism that would prevail in all subsequent dynasties.

By the time we arrive at Sima Guang's Song dynasty (CE 960-1279), people routinely spoke of how the traditions might blend harmoniously in the course of a day or even a lifetime. You see, by the early centuries of the Common Era (CE), another doctrine had worked its way into the very essence of Chinese life—Buddhism. This is not the place to go deeply into its influence on Chinese history, although it was—and remains—profound. It will help us to understand "syncretism," though. The Chinese saying is: 三教合一 (the three teachings merge into one). It has been explained in various ways over the course of the centuries. In one way of putting it, a person is a Confucian in the morning (striving, focused on results and hierarchies, determined), becomes something of a Daoist by mid-afternoon (perhaps taking the day off and dragging the ol' tail in the mud), and, as nightfall approaches, turns "Buddhist" (before fading off into the nothingness of sleep). It can also be told in terms of a life—Confucian when young, Daoist in middle-age, and Buddhist as one nears the end. No matter how we approach it, though, the idea of blending and even patching is central to understanding Chinese life and thought.

It is not, and never was, a situation such as "Catholic or Protestant." As any student of European history can tell us, that was complicated enough. In China, it was Confucian and Daoist (and, depending on the period, Buddhist). "Where's Legalism?," I hear you cry. Everywhere. Really. We'll deal with that as we proceed. The meticulous work of Sima Guang, one of the great historians of China, would put these teaching back together in a text of such breadth and ambition that it would connect the Warring States period to his own day, and teach its readers to think of their self-conduct, the nurturing of their families, and ultimately the rulership of the one.
[b] Sima's afternoon walk  RF
It is important to realize one more thing as we begin to approach Sima's beautifully blended patchwork quilt of historical reconstruction and managerial teaching. He wasn't crazy about Buddhism. Indeed, not many officials of his period were. What is often misunderstood about Sima Guang and the whole "Luoyang conservative" crowd we read about in "Breaking the Vessel," is that they were surprisingly tolerant in most everything except some of their essays. His colleague Ouyang Xiu (1007-1072) wrote a particularly derisive essay about Buddhism (本論; "On Fundamentals"). On the other hand, they lived, wrote, partied, and hiked in a city that had been a teeming center of Buddhist life and architecture for ages. Today it is the UNESCO Heritage Site called the Longmen Grottoes. Sima Guang and his peers hiked in those hills along the river—serious Neo-Confucians walking amidst Buddhist statuary. The point is this: syncretism was a prevalent theme in Chinese life by the time the Comprehensive Mirror was written, and no amount of ideological bluster can change that.

His great managerial work shows it, even if it doesn't give much brush or ink to the Buddhists.

As we saw in "Breaking the Vessel," Sima Guang was—from young reader to mature statesman‚ a lifelong student of history. He knew the lessons from both sides of the Warring States fence—Confucians who ordered their worlds in strict hierarchical fashions and Daoists who mocked them, seeking to tear down the structures that they deemed shallow and artificial. In Sima Guang, we see living and learning come together, with a message that blends precise policy and clear articulation of principles with the relentless momentum of cascading water. To recall the first great crisis of Sima's life, we will remember that, of all the children in the courtyard, it was only little Sima who was able to take action and save the drowning child. Mere experience counted for little in a tradition that emphasized that one must learn deeply from the experience of others—observed and textual—in order to be truly capable of action in the world.
[c] Harmonics  RF
Living and Learning 1          Living and Learning 2            Living and Learning 3           Living and Learning 4
Living and Learning 5          Living and Learning 6            Living and Learning 7           Living and Learning 8
Living and Learning 9          Living and Learning 10          Living and Learning 11         Living and Learning 12

Polishing the Mirror
How does the Comprehensive Mirror "teach its lessons?" What kind of reader did Sima Guang expect? For whom was he really writing?

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