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.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (10)—Reviewing Plans

Click here to go to section one of "Breaking the Vessel."
Click below for the other "Breaking the Vessel" posts.
1         2         3         4         5         6         7         8         9         10          11          12
[a] Dragon art
[b] Machiavelli's art
This month's main entries (entitled “Breaking the Vessel”) will chronicle an author and a book—Sima Guang (1019-1086) and the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling, which was submitted to the (Northern) Song dynasty throne in what we in the West call January of 1085. I like to say that this book is the missing piece in management education, during which MBA students read carefully through translations of the Art of War and then seem to think that they understand Chinese management thought. (Good luck with that, pardner). I like to say that Sunzi (Sun-tzu) is “lunch” and the Comprehensive Mirror is “what comes next—it’s what’s for supper.”  It is essential reading for everyone at any level of management—from parent and foreman to ruler of the world (and everything in between). The problem is that it is 10,000 pages long (I am not kidding) and is in Chinese—“medieval” Chinese, at that. That is where I come in. I want to help you. 
Welcome. 歡迎. I have been waiting for you.

Reviewing Plans
[c] Early review
The early reviews, as we say in today's publishing 'biz, were excellent. One of the earliest of them was written almost as the project was getting underway, but it set such a positive tone for the entire work—and its reputation throughout Chinese history—that it is worth pondering. The young Emperor Shenzong, having just taken the throne for himself after his father's death, read the initial manuscript sections that had so pleased his father and decided to give the work a new title (emperors get to do things like that). Instead of Sima Guang's modest working title of Comprehensive Records (通志), Shenzong bequeathed on it the florid alliteration of Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling (資治通鑑).

Let's see what Shenzong had to say about the managerial thought of the manager he was about to pass over for promotion. In this preface to the text, Shenzong suggested that the book was to be used, writing that it should be "presented daily for study."
The Book of Poetry, The Book of History, and Spring and Autumn Annals are all great works of history that clarify the traces of rise and decline, contain the correct Way of early kings, and cast a reflection of warning upon later ages...
This is formidable opening. Sima's work is being put in the context of fine company, all masterworks included in the roll of Chinese classics (). It also appears that the emperor "got it," and that he saw precisely what was different in this chronicle from the confused narratives of the dynastic histories that Sima had criticized before undertaking the project. Shenzong has much more to say, however.
[d] Early plan
Here recorded are enlightened rulers and beneficent ministers mutually encouraging the way of rule, essential teachings of critical discussions, good regulation of reward and punishment, the mutual relationship between heaven and man, the underpinnings of danger and prosperity, flourishing and decline, the effect of models of profit and loss, the strategic plans of skillful commanders, and the orthodox teachings of upright officials.  
[e] Bored room
If you can see through the imperial (and heavily Confucian) prism, it should not be difficult to see in the lines above...a management book. Look at them again, and think back to The Fifth Discipline and From Good to Great. Critical discussions (presented in what we might almost call a "case study" format), regulation of incentives, the inherent risks in any large scale operation, success and failure, profit and loss (no "translation" needed there), and strategic plans. Just a little tweaking of the thousand year-old imperial wording shows a lively engagement with the kinds of ideas that every leader in every era has understood.  Emperor Shenzong understood it in 1068; Mao Zedong understood it in the mid-1930s. Shenzong continues:
[All of the above] is judged in light of heterodoxy and orthodoxy and highlighted with reference to governing and anarchy; the profound structure of assenting memorials and the deep and penetrating righteousness of critical remonstrance are presented skillfully and completely therein...The Book of Poetry states, "The mirror of Shang is not distant; it rests in the Xia rulers' age."  Therefore I bestow the title Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling on this text, so as to make known my intentions thereby.[1]
[f] —doxy
Shenzong's conclusion cements it for the managerial reader. After a little statement about orthodoxy (which, let us not forget, was important to Shenzong and his flock), he reaches the heart of the managerial message. He notes the text's "profound" use of memorials and remonstrance, topics that reach to the heart of a serious leadership message, as we will see in subsequent essays. He then concludes with another "framing" quotation from a great classic and changes the earlier title, which conveys a sense of "records of administration" to the resonatingly managerial title that stresses the uses to which it can and should be put by leaders.

[g] Songyang academia
Seventeen years later, Sima Guang had a whole book to go along with Shenzong's awe-inspiring preface. I could quote at length from what his peers—both allies and opponents—said of the text, but you probably can sense it already from the positive glow of two reformers, Shenzong and Mao, nine hundred years apart. He did good, as we say back home, but he didn't have much left in the tank. He was heading for that great archive in the sky.

And then Shenzong died.

[h] Dragon heirs
The death of the emperor caused quite a stir in the capital, as you might guess. It usually does. He had been ailing for some time, and had chosen his eight year-old son as heir apparent. This, too, created a stir. The messy politics of "regency" is not our concern here, but it meant that the young emperor would have someone making decisions on his behalf for up to a decade. The new regent would be Shenzong's mother, the new emperor's grandmother. For our purposes, however, it is much easier to see a clearer connection. The woman who would be the dowager empress Xuanren had been the principal wife (empress) of Emperor Yingzong—he of solid devotion to his teacher and advisor, Sima Guang, until his death in 1067. Xuanren thought just as highly of Sima Guang as had her imperial husband. It was not long before she began sending invitations for Sima to visit Kaifeng.

[i] Pensive
Sima Guang remained in Luoyang, but was at length persuaded to return to the capital to pay respects to the deceased emperor. It was hard to avoid, since staying put had the potential to make him look petty. So he went, riding, we are told, a fine horse. The best source for this period, the Continuation of the Comprehensive Mirror written by Sima's most trusted associate, Fan Zuyu, puts it colorfully. Let us not forget that Sima Guang was a rock star, a major public figure with a powerful reputation at least in the territories where the Yellow River flowed. Apparently alerted in advance of Sima's arrival, a crowd of thousands awaited him near the palace gates. When he arrived (it is said) several palace guards addressed him as "Prime Minister Sima." There was shouting and thronging. Tumult.

"Please do not go back to Luoyang," they shouted; "stay here and help the emperor revive the people!" Remember, now, that Sima was sixty-six years old, exhausted from his historiographical labors, and had just taken a trip of over a hundred miles during a time of mourning. What comes next makes it hard not to have some compassion for him. He was tired, ambivalent, and maybe a little scared.

Alarmed by the crowds and the adulation, he rushed back to Luoyang.[2]

[j] Longmen heterodoxy
If this were the end, it would make a nice documentary. Very genial; quite touching, really. The once-powerful official, worn thin by his labors, rushes back to safety and relative seclusion. Fade to black; roll the credits. But it is not quite the end, and Sima would live eighteen more months. Usually historians should be chastised for writing this way (their subjects don't know the future, and historians shouldn't "telegraph" it too much). In this case, though, Sima knew. His writings and his peers' assessments made clear that he knew quite well that this was about to be the last rodeo. It was just a matter of where he was going to spend it—in the quiet, peony pavilions of Luoyang or the faction-ridden capital in Kaifeng.

[j] Light reading
Let me put it another way. His choice was a difficult one. Was he going to drift off into reveries of Chinese philosophy? He had said at one point that if he had more time, he would study deeply the patterns of the Yijing (I-ching). Well, now he had the time. On the other hand, as several of his compatriots told him, he had the opportunity to put his ways into practice—to manage in the Big Show, and with the added credibility of a distinguished author whose book was already famous throughout the empire. It is clear that he had been thinking about "leadership issues" for decades (just take another look at Shenzong's preface, above, if you have any doubts). Was he going to wax philosophical or join the fray?

[1] Comprehensive Mirror, 33-34.
[2] Continuation of the Comprehensive Mirror, 8465.
Friday, April 22
Bustin' Stuff
It all started quite inconspicuously. We'll take a look at Sima's first steps into policy debates, followed by a full-fledged trashin' of the reform program of his rivals. And then he died.  We are left to figure out what it all means.

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