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, June 17, 2011

Living and Learning (11)—Polishing the Mirror

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] Mirroring  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.
Polishing the Mirror

So how did people look into the Comprehensive Mirror over the centuries? What kind of readers did Sima Guang expect? If you recall, the modern Chinese scholar Liang Qichao once said that the Comprehensive Mirror is an "imperial textbook," teaching statecraft at the highest levels. Liang is most definitely on to something there, but it does not go far enough. Surely, Sima Guang did envision rulers studying the pages of his text, as even the ruler-to-be Mao Zedong did on the Long March—a study that continued throughout his life. It is not difficult to see, however, that Sima had other readers in mind, as well. Hardly a page goes by that doesn't seem to be speaking to "someone" else—and many of them, at that. We'll get to precisely who "those someones" are in the next section. For now, we need to learn more about the kinds of qualities he sought for students of a very challenging kind of management teaching.

The first thing to realize in this pursuit is that the "Confucians" were hardly all text and no action. Far from it—despite the verbal jabs they endured from Daoists and Legalists (and, eventually, Buddhists). Indeed, the Analects of Confucius contain numerous passages illustrating the complex combination of individual effort, experience in the world, and study that contributes to the formation of the most accomplished individuals (and the readers they envisioned for their most ambitious teachings).

The master said: When walking with even three people there are certainly things I can learn from them—what is good I select and follow, and what is bad I inwardly correct.
There is a hidden gem in this statement that we will return to again and again here in The Emperor's Teacher. Most people over the ages have tended to prioritize the first part of the statement. As we have seen, learning from positive examples can be very useful. No doubt about it. On the other hand, there is (as we have seen already in a few places) a powerful interpretive tradition in China centered on learning from bad examples (people and conduct). As I have already hinted, this is one of the most important clues to understanding the managerial lessons of the Comprehensive Mirror. We must learn to make great pies from bad apples. 

The anecdotes we have encountered from the Warring States period bring us to the verge of understanding the relationship between learning and living—and how individuals can act to change the world around them. Yet they remain just hints. The stories still do not tell us precisely how the gap between study and action is to be bridged. They rather crystallize what Chinese writers of history sought to accomplish. From Confucius to Sima Guang, the ideal reader was one who was able to reflect upon both positive and negative models found in the classics, philosophies, and histories and turn that knowledge toward action that integrates the individual, the family, and the enterprise. In short, they show how people can, with proper training, learn from living and live from learning.

History taught that. We will not get much further in our discussion of this masterful book unless we fully internalize something that just does not resonate very well in American culture—even American academic culture. History, you see, was the king of the disciplines—the pinnacle of the genres—in China. This was the case at least until the beginning of the nineteenth century, and the influence of Sima's teachings cannot be understood without knowing that. This is so far from being the case in most of the West (and much of Asia) today, that we must force ourselves to keep it in the fronts of our minds as we read. The only thing that surpassed history among Chinese readers of Sima's day were the classics—and people didn't get to write new ones. No, the key to deep knowledge lay in telling what happened, where, and when

And a little bit more.

In an essay written in middle-age, Sima Guang gave a clear example of the readers for whom he wrote—noting that they studied the books of the early kings not merely to master their commentaries or minute details but rather to seek their principles and outlines. He continued his essay by making the situation even more complex. Once readers have understood the key principles (a formidable task in its own right) their mere recitation in lectures, explanations, or history books—"studying for the test," as it were—would deceive people.

Take a moment and think about that term. Deception. That's a pretty strong word (it is in Chinese, too) for talking about "school." But there we have it. We will be deceived by "merely" studying.

Here, Sima Guang shows a delightful "Daoist" streak blended with the roles and hierarchies that were a part of his basically "Confucian" mental apparatus. The true scholar, he wrote, must practice these principles, both in his personal life and in his relationships with his peers, his seniors, and his juniors. Sima Guang thus emphasized not mere knowledge of facts (or success on exams) but the working out of principles, even as we study the examples to be found in history. He advocated, in short, the living of one's learning.
[b] History and the mirror of nature  RF
The culmination of Sima Guang's lifetime of historical study—the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling—can thus be seen very much as a book of Chinese "organizational management." It presents a series of examples of past management actions (in their rich historical and cultural context) from which readers could learn for their own purposes, even though times and ways of life had often changed considerably. 

The ultimate goal of careful study, like that exemplified by young Sima's saving of a drowning child, was not mere knowledge, but action. Sima Guang considered history to be much more than a way to garner factual information about the past. He ultimately perceived it as a tool for creating better people, better families, and better institutions—a way to connect a mere individual to the larger elements of society that gave a single life (a child struggling in a rain-filled urn) its meaning.

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

Teaching the Emperor
Teaching who? Why? We'll finish up part one ("Breaking the Vessel"; "Living and Learning") by beginning to explore what it means to power. It is the key to managing oneself, one's family, and, indeed, all under heaven, and will set the tone for the management lessons that will follow.

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