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Monday, June 6, 2011

Living and Learning (4)—Mockery by Mencius

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] Straight path  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.
Mockery by Mencius
So how do we translate knowledge into action? How do we really move from the lessons of history to life? Let us examine another thinker in the Confucian tradition—one who lived several generations later, and who saw first-hand the devastation wrought by contending states. Mencius (372-289 BCE) wastes little time in decorum when dealing with the leaders of powerful kingdoms. From his perspective, the "rules" that exist are inherent in the very ways of life. The ruler who misses them will always fail; the ruler who embraces them will always succeed. In this respect, politics is not complicated for Mencius.

The very first passage of the Mencius gives a good example of the philosopher's approach to hierarchy, leadership, and conduct. He was in the habit of visiting kings, and this passage has him meeting a certain King Hui of the state of Liang, who is impressed that he has traveled many hundreds of kilometers (a li is about half a kilometer—a third of a mile—but no one is measuring here). 

          Mencius went to see King Hui of Liang. “Sir,” said the king. “You have come 
          all this distance, thinking nothing of a thousand li. You must surely have some 
          way of profiting my state?

[b] Mencius
Most of us might think of King Hui's last line as a kind of social nicety, without particular force or deep motivation. Mencius uses it as a way to begin crafting his approach to ruling. "What is the point of mentioning profit?," asks Mencius. The statement is pointed, and immediately the situation plays into Mencius's [2] hands. "All that matters is that there be benevolence (仁) and rightness (義)." Why on earth, he snaps, would you speak of (mere, dirty, selfish) profit or advantage (利)?

He has cut the ruler to size—rhetorically at least—before they could even sit down to a nice, refreshing drink after a long trip. It is a little like fiercely excoriating a host immediately after s/he says "May I take your coat?" 

For Mencius, these were not matters of politesse; they were the difference between success and failure, thriving and starving. They were deadly serious for him, and he launches in, at this point, to a long explanation of precisely how the state will fail if those above ask "how can I profit my person?" Suffice it to say that everyone from the king to the lowliest commoner will ape the behaviors, states Mencius, and all will be imperiled.

A few entries later (Mencius would have adapted well to blogging), he is again speaking with King Hui of Liang—the straw man of the opening sequence in the Mencius. 

          King Hui of Liang said, “I have done the best for my state. When crops failed 
          in Henei I moved the population to Hedong and the grain to Henei, and 
          reversed the action when crops failed in Hedong. I have not noticed any of 
          the neighboring states taking as many pains over government, so how is it 
          that their population remains steady and mine has not increased?

This is child's play for Mencius. King Hui has created his own trap, and then walked right into it. Mencius cannot seem to bear giving a direct answer that speaks to kingly hubris. Instead, he begins with an analogy:

          “Your Majesty is fond of war,” said Mencius. “May I use an analogy from it? 
          After weapons were crossed to the and strewing their weapons on the 
          battlefield. One stopped after a hundred strides, another after fifty. What 
          would you think if the soldier who ran fifty strides mocked the one who 
          ran a hundred?”

          “He had no right to mock him,” said the King. “He did not quite run a hundred 
          strides. That is all. Nonetheless, he deserted. “If you can see that,” said 
          Mencius, “you will not expect your own state to be more populous than the
          neighboring states."

Completely entangled at this point, King Hui listens and watches as the spider begins to wrap him up. Mencius launches into a long discussion of the kingly way, and the manner in which a true king pays close attention to the proper seasons, so that people can work the fields and provide for themselves (rather than toil on behalf of the king in war or building projects). He discusses the importance of customs and education, hierarchy and discipline. "When those who are seventy years wear silk and eat meat and the masses are neither cold nor hungry, it is impossible for their leader not to be a true King."

Although this is masterful, Mencius is not quite done. He has spent the equivalent of a page of English text laying out how it should be (the positive example of which we spoke recently in these posts). To finish off his prey, he issues the deadly spider bite in very personal terms.

          Now when food meant for human beings is so plentiful as to be thrown to 
          dogs and pigs, you fail to realize that it is time for garnering, and when men 
          drop dead from starvation by the wayside, you fail to realize that it is time for
          distribution. When people die, you simply say, "It is not my doing; it is the 
          fault of the harvest." In what way is that different from killing a man by 
          running him through, while saying throughout "It is none of my doing; it is the 
          fault of the weapon." Stop putting the blame on the harvest, and the people 
          of the whole realm will come to you.

[c] Bickering   RF
The teachings of Confucius and Mencius are among the most famous in the entire Chinese tradition, and the phrases that I have quoted above could be rattled off from memory by every reader for the last twenty centuries (yes, they are that famous). They also had a significant impact on almost all approaches to governing in Chinese history. When rulers agreed with them, they worked their ways into state policy. Even when rulers and thinkers disagreed, they were arguing within and against a dominant tradition.

But here's a key point for understanding the divided thought of the Warring States period (when Sima Guang began the narrative of the Comprehensive Mirror). They weren't dominant yet. It is too easy to forget that the impact of the Confucian tradition did not emerge directly out of the thought and work of Confucius...or Mencius. They were later developments crafted by imperial governments.

For now, people were bickering—at best. Rulers were strategizing. "Consultants" were taking hundreds—figuratively, if not literally—of different approaches to the questions of "how do we learn and how should we govern?" Everything was in flux, and many thinkers felt that they had much better approaches than the people we call Confucians.

[1] Central Peak Temple (中嶽廟) at the foot of Mt. Song. Dengfeng, Henan. Photo by Robert André LaFleur.
[2] "Lesson One" in Strunk and White, The Elements of Style. They have a point. Let's deal. 

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

We will take a look next at ways in which Confucius and Mencius were mocked mercilessly for their naïveté. King Hui may have cowered before Mencius, but Legalist and Daoist thinkers were unafraid to poke fun at thinkers who seemed to them only to look backward.

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