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Wednesday, August 7, 2013

The Art of Warning—Introduction (b): The Backstory

[a] Back RF
The next few posts will introduce a new series on Round and Square—one that is intimately linked to my large project called "The Emperor's Teacher" (the management book that will change the world. This series focuses intently on the ways in which Sima Guang's great historical work, the Comprehensive Mirror, "works." You've read the Art of War, perhaps. Now get ready for the main course—the Art of Warning.

Click here for other sections of this introduction to The Art of Warning.
Warning 1          Warning 2          Warning 3          Warning 4          Warning 5          Warning 6

The Backstory
Say the name “Sima Guang” and “childhood” to anyone in China and you will hear one of the most famous stories in all of Chinese history. Today, images of it dominate several distinctive postage stamps, and the first-grade reader retells it for every new generation. It goes like this. On a sunny day in 1026, precocious little Sima Guang, seven years old, sat reading classical historical documents in his father’s well-appointed study. He was the very picture of the diligent young scholar in a culture that admired lifelong learners.
As Sima studied, children played in the large courtyard surrounding the family compound. While little Sima Guang read from his texts, the children played a game much like “hide and seek” on the rolling terrain of the family’s grounds. Suddenly, cries of confusion came from the courtyard. Sima Guang’s biography in the Song Dynasty History tells what happened next.

A group of children was playing in the courtyard when one child climbed onto a large, decorative urn. His feet slipped and he fell into deep rainwater in the vessel. The other children fled in fear and confusion, but Sima Guang grasped a stone and broke the vessel, saving the child’s life.

To my mind, this passage shows that it was precisely the little reader—the gifted student of the classical histories—who was able to move directly from text to action, from clear knowledge of his books to making a difference in the world. Far from presenting Sima as a young hermit, it shows that only he was able to take action and save the life of the drowning child. The other, presumably less serious, children were unable to cope with the enormity of the problem and fled. The roughhousing youths likely had far more experience in the world (and with playing “hide and seek” in courtyard vessels) than the seven-year old bookworm in his father’s study. Yet only little Sima was able to bridge the fundamental gap between learning about the world and living in it. Only Sima put down his book, switched roles, and picked up a rock.
This story has everything to do with the big, historical, management book Sima Guang would later write.
***  ***
Let’s fast-forward. Forty years later, after passing the highest state examinations at a breathtakingly early age and moving quickly through the administrative hierarchy, Sima Guang found himself in another study—that of the emperor himself. The immensely talented Sima held the prestigious position of chief tutor to the emperor Yingzong (r. 1064-1067). It was a sure route to the premiership, the highest civilian office in the empire. His official task was to explain the lessons of the past to the emperor in a way that could help him function smoothly in difficult political and managerial situations.

In fact, he had been doing this for decades. Sima’s Song Dynasty History biography explains:
 When Sima Guang was seven years old, he already appeared to be a highly accomplished individual. He would hear the classical histories recounted by the family tutor; he admired them, and explained their contents to his family, all the while highlighting the broad outlines and teachings for them. From that point onward, he was never without a book in his hands, to the point that he paid no attention to hunger or thirst, heat or cold.

Now, in 1066, a mature Sima Guang highlighted the broad outlines of the classical histories not for his family, but for the person known in China as the Son of Heaven. He distilled the lessons from China’s history as a way of showing how government should be managed in the present day. He had already spent a lifetime studying, and throughout that life had constantly sought to translate his learning into meaningful results in the world around him.

Sima was on the verge of putting all of that knowledge into practice in a position akin to that of the COO (Chief Operating Officer) of a large company. In this case, it was a very large company—the Song empire. A funny thing happened on Sima’s way to political power, though. In 1067, the emperor Yingzong died, and his eldest son, Shenzong (r. 1067-1085) succeeded him. Sima’s cautious message that it takes years to create peace and prosperity, but only moments to undo it, had appealed to the new emperor’s late father. He quickly learned that he would have a difficult time convincing the son of his perspective. A year later his influence was on the wane and his chief rival was given the premiership over him. Sima Guang, whose entire career had been marked by enormous success in all spheres, found himself on the outside, unable to convince his new ruler of his teachings. By 1070, he had used every argument he could muster, both publicly and privately, yet he had lost.
So he retired to a city two hundred miles away and wrote a very long book.

I often say that the Comprehensive Mirror is a brilliant combination of painstaking scholarship and angry revenge. The tale of those fifteen years in the city of Luoyang would lead us far afield, but suffice it to say that Sima Guang sniffed the political winds even as he worked on his increasingly massive tome. And it was massive. One document notes that the draft version of just one-fifth of the book filled two rooms in his home. In a nutshell, Sima and his five assistants scoured over three hundred original historical sources, placed what they saw as the best elements into their new book, and then provided layers and layers of commentary from the time the events happened, from later pundits, and in their own words. It is these commentaries that constitute the managerial gold in the Comprehensive Mirror, because they create a series of linked case studies showing not only “what happened,” but how the various actors outlined, argued, and implemented the policies. It covers 1,362 years of policy-making, and hammers home several themes so powerfully that every careful reader has been influenced by them for almost a thousand years. 

Let’s turn to those lessons now.

Click here for other sections of this introduction to The Art of Warning.
Warning 1          Warning 2          Warning 3          Warning 4          Warning 5          Warning 6

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