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.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Living and Learning (5)—Stumps

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] Massive Pre-stump  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.
The biggest problem for Confucian thinkers is that few people were as capable as the great masters we have studied. Less diligent students too often skipped from study to action and back again (or took a midday nap). Some merely recited the Book of Songs, not having a clue as to how its teachings might "translate" into action in the world around them. In short, many of them were just plain drudges, poseurs, or charlatans. This was not good for the brand, to say the least.

In the heart of the Warring States period, the "Legalist" (法家) philosopher Han Fei's (281-233 BCE) example of a farmer in the state of Song sums up every negative quality of procrastination, silly hopefulness, and fatalism that can be found in early Chinese thought—and our own. The farmer and the stump in the state of Song is one of the most memorable examples in Chinese literature of missing the point entirely—of seeing only yesterday while tripping over today.

Among the people of Song there was a farmer who tilled the land. In his field there was a stump. One day, while he was farming, a rabbit dashed across the field, hit the stump, broke its neck on impact, and died. Seeing this, the farmer cast aside his plow and stood guard at the stump, hoping to gain another rabbit. He would find no more rabbits in this manner, and the farmer was mocked by people in the state of Song.
[b] Structure, contingency   RF
So let's get this straight. The farmer is toiling away, and what historians like to call "a contingency" occurs (it is something that just happens to happen, within certain general structural constraints). It does not take years of tilling the soil to realize that rabbits do not, on a daily basis—preparing themselves for your evening stew—rush headlong toward death into tree stumps. Most farmers would realize...just by observing the world around them...that they should keep up the ol' hoeing and tilling. It does not take much "real world" experience to see the folly in this story.

So why does Han Fei tell it?

Because he asserts that Confucius, Mencius, and especially their all-too-shallow followers...are stumpwatchers. Han Fei criticizes those who looked to the past for models of government, and said that those, for example, who sought to bring back the virtues of the Duke of Zhou, were fuzzy-minded dilettantes with no clear idea about how to proceed in a complicated world. They were no better than the dull-minded farmer in the state of Song, waiting for the rabbit to charge (or for the Duke of Zhou to appear). 

That means you, Confucius and Mencius!...he seemed to say. 

Even in those volatile times, this was very harsh criticism. He derided the kinds of extremes that any bookish tradition can create. For every thoughtful, meaningful action that emerges from careful study, there are many more people who get caught in the morass of detail, or fail to see the other three quarters of a problem placed right before them. "That wasn't supposed to be on the test," we (seem to) hear one cry. "I have just decided to look at these two aspects of the complex problem," says another. "But that doesn't fit the model we've constructed," sniffs a third.

Those people stare at stumps and wait for events to charge at them. Han Fei has no time for them, and regards them as more dangerous than thinkers we will soon consider (notably Zhuangzi) who seem much more fuzzy and ethereal. Staring at stumps is worse than time-wasting, from Han Fei's point of view. It is distinctly dangerous—and far more insidious than taking the day off to go fishing (stay tuned).

[c] Drones  RF
Many of our educational and managerial extremes, from busywork to exceedingly narrow specialization with reams of jargon—even taking what one reads much too literally—fit under Han Fei's stumpwatching umbrella. Even the ever-vigilant Confucius never explained why taking a midday nap would harm Zai Yu. As Chinese critics of book knowledge noted (often with great relish), the past may have had its own sort of importance—a model, and sometimes an inspiration—but it is never the moment in which one lives. 

Think about that. No, don't pretend this is a classroom exercise in which the teacher shows that s/he is engaged with students' needs; it is not the kind of managerial "group exercise" we all hate. No, this is the real thing. I mean, this matters, people. Think about the fact that no matter what you read or study, the moment in which you will act will be different.

No, stop rushing. I don't just mean "different" in a basic or general sense. I mean completely different. The first is studied or rehearsed. The second (the moment) is lived. You are an understudy in the Broadway play of LIFE. The moment has come. The question is not "how do I pass the test?" The question (at least for those who aspire to be leaders) is "how do I excel?" 

Really think about it. It's that important.

Han Fei reflected upon these matters a great deal, and he thought that the Confucians were a joke—with all of their books and sages and treasures being just so many rows of stumps in the big field of life. People who read books in order to act in the present, for Han Fei, were no different than a dimwitted farmer who cast aside his plow to wait for another rabbit to charge headlong into a stump and die—serving him a ready dinner without a moment's work, save a little skinning, gutting, and cooking.

There is no free (charbroiled rabbit) lunch, Han Fei seems to say, and he is consistent in this message. Let's take a look at one more of his jabs at Confucians (particularly Mencius) who stressed that gaining the goodwill of the people was the most important aspect of rule. Not so for Han Fei, and he is merciless. The people are morons, he seems to say. I can imagine Mencius shuddering in rage and stammering, had King Hui replied with such language. 
[d] Compliance, authority   RF
In The Mencius, King Hui just takes the abuse; his role is to be a literary foil. Not so for Han Fei. Sixty years later, Han Fei has a response, and it is virulent. I will paraphrase it thus: the people don't know much of anything about what will make them happy and fruitful; rulers know better.

This is harsh, indeed, and these phrases will certainly resonate for anyone who has picked up a "newspaper" in China in the last...two thousand years or so. Let's take a look at the very particular way that he criticizes the Confucians, though. It is memorable, to say the least, and that is where will will end for today—with argumentation...or bickering.

If you have paid any attention to the twentieth century (and into the twenty-first), you will note certain parallels to Han Fei's rhetoric in today's global politics. 

           Those who do not understand how to govern all say: “Obtain the hearts of the
           people.”…[But] the people are no more intelligent than an infant. If an infant’s 
           head is not shaved, his sores will not heal; if his boils are not lanced, his illness 
           will worsen. Even when someone holds him and his loving mother does the 
           shaving or lancing, he will howl without stop, for a baby cannot see that a small 
           discomfort will result in a major improvement. 

Now the ruler wants the people to till the land and maintain pastures to increase their production, but they think he is cruel. He imposes heavy penalties to prevent wickedness, but they think he is harsh. He levies taxes in cash and grain to fill the storehouses and thus relieve them in time of famine and have funds for the army, but they consider him greedy. He imposes military training on everyone in the land and makes his forces fight hard in order to capture the enemy, but they consider him violent. In all four cases, he uses means that will lead to peace, but the people are not happy. 

[1] Songyang Academy "General Cypress." Dengfeng, Henan. Photo taken 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

NEXT—Finding the Way
Daoist thinkers saw things altogether differently. Both Han Fei and Mencius (and all of the others) missed the point, from their perspective(s). We'll take a few days to consider some of the most obtuse (and prescient) thinking the world has ever known in our next post of Living and Learning.

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