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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|
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 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 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.
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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 teach...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.