Click below for the other "Living and Learning" posts.
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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] 儒 RL-|
We will use the word "Confucian" to refer to these thinkers, since the term is both widespread and useful in the West. It is worth pointing out that scholars of Chinese thought quite rightly refer to them as 儒. It is pronounced ru (almost exactly the way that the first two letters of the English word "rule" is pronounced—just leave off the "le," and you have it). These 儒—ru—Confucian thinkers saw themselves as teachers, and organized their educational practices in ways that would have enormous influence on Chinese education through the ages.
They learned, reflected upon their learning, and thought about how others might learn. They were also not shy about bemoaning the state of their own world. Confucius (551-479 BCE) himself could be cranky about the state of education in his time, and many of his frustrations ring true several millennia later.
|[b] Not your ordinary Zhou PD|
He imagined a better time, five hundred years before his own, when the Duke of Zhou set the standards for a state and society that led to harmony among the people. Confucius is said to have put his study into action by writing philosophical works and a major history of the period—The Spring and Autumn Annals—that showed how dangerous a path his contemporaries were on, as they "pitted sons against fathers and ministers against rulers."
Confucius also set demanding standards for his students, from their intellectual abilities to their personal habits. He had no patience for disciples who needed to have entire arguments explained to them before they understood, and his standards for preparation were formidable.
This may be the most significant matter that Western business readers have failed to understand about Chinese managerial thought, and we will return to it several times in The Emperor's Teacher. In a nutshell, though, the problem is this. Most thinkers assumed such a deep familiarity with the core teachings and the scholarly traditions that they began their disquisitions at a very high level. The background work just to understand the gist of the discussion was formidable, indeed. The situation was not very different from what might have been found in Europe, at times when scholarly discussion was all carried out in Latin and those who wished to join it had many years of focused study ahead of them. This was not, in short, a world of one-minute solutions, moving cheeses, chicken soup, or carrots and sticks.
Confucius also demanded hard work once students had reached the point at which they could join the conversation; he had no patience for what he regarded as sloth.
|[c] Book of Songs PD|
Nonetheless, moving from books to life, from learning to living, is fraught with difficulty, and Confucius realized that such a connection did not take place of its own accord. For Confucius, the word "study" implies action; there is no clear separation between thinking and doing. When you read the quotation below, do realize that the book to which Confucius refers is one of the greatest classics in the Chinese tradition (not a strum-by-numbers pamphlet).
If we ponder his words, though, we might realize that we have a portion of the explanation, and that it is not very different from the management challenges we have discussed thus far. We gain one-quarter (what we might call today "the prompt") from paying attention. There is a managerial problem; how should we assess it? That's a start. From there, we are to provide the other three-quarters—the solution, as it were. Book meets world at the intersection of the manager—the person who needs to bridge the gap. They're counting on you.
He might well have said that "management is difficult; get over it" or, simply, "get to work." And that is just what we shall do.
 Confucian to the core; Songyang Academy at the foot of Mt. Song. Dengfeng, Henan. Photo by Robert André LaFleur.
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Mockery by Mencius
Confucius is remembered for aphorisms taken down by his disciples—pithy phrases that often get right to the heart of the managerial matter. More than occasionally, they wax poetical to a point where thinkers through the ages have puzzled over what, exactly, he might have meant. Another great ru (Confucian) thinker, Mencius, wrote in what we today might call "whole paragraphs," and spent a great deal of his time traveling to other kingdoms and criticizing rulers for getting it all wrong. Join us on Monday, as we watch the lowly philosopher mock the misrule of powerful men.