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.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

Living and Learning (3)—Rules and Regulations

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] 儒  RL-[1]
 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.

Rules and Regulations
Among early Chinese philosophers, those lumped together under the term "Confucian" perhaps best represent the ideal of steeping oneself deeply in the works of earlier writers (the sages were strongly preferred) and moving outward in an ever-widening circle toward meaningful action in one's family and one's work. They stressed the examples of the early kings—Yao, Shun, and Yu—and historical models of correct conduct many hundreds of years before they lived. Reading and reflection were the route to success, they might have said. In fact, in not a few places (as we shall see) they said precisely that.

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.

The Master said: Those who studied in ancient times sought to improve themselves; those who study today seek to impress other people.
[b] Not your ordinary Zhou   PD
Living in the generation before China erupted in warfare, Confucius observed the world around him—one moving slowly from petty warfare among small states to large-scale struggles for control of all under heaven, as the Chinese referred to their territory then. He did not like what he saw.

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.

The Master said: If a disciple does not rage with excitement, I do not instruct him; one who is at a loss for words, I do not enlighten. When I raise one side of a problem—one corner of a square—and he does not give me in return the other three, I will not raise it again.
The great sage valued active and engaged learning, and his example of expecting the student, or reader, to supply three-quarters of the meaning from the kernel of his teaching would persist in all of the great treatises written in China since his time.

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.

Zai Yu slept during the daytime.
The Master said, “Rotten wood cannot be carved; walls of excrement cannot be troweled. As for Zai Yu, what is the point in even bothering to punish him?”
The criticism of poor, sleepy Zai Yu is even greater than it may at first appear, because Confucius continues by explaining that his entire attitude toward people changed because of his disciple who slumbered at midday.

In the beginning, my attitude toward people was that I listened to their words and trusted that their actions would follow. Now my attitude toward people is that I listen to their words and observe their actions. It is because of Zai Yu that I changed my behavior.
At the heart of Confucius's terse observations lie the ideal that constant reading and reflection would transform one's knowledge, character, and actions in the world—that truly capable students (and early risers) would exhibit in their actions the same qualities of incisive thinking and virtuous conduct that they had acquired from their reading and recitation.

[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 a person can recite the three hundred poems in the Book of Songs, yet when given official responsibility he fails, or when sent to distant quarters he is unable to act—then although he knows so much, what good is it to anyone?
Study, for Confucius, was more than mere bookishness. It had to be used when disciples entered the "real world." For Confucius, discharging one's responsibilities as a government official or functioning adeptly in a far-off position can emerge from the memorization and recitation of the Book of Songs, but he never explains exactly how it is to be done. He only states that it is the very purpose of learning and that we need to remain focused.

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.

[1] Confucian to the core; Songyang Academy at the foot of Mt. Song. Dengfeng, Henan. Photo by Robert André LaFleur.

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

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.

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