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:

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Monday, April 11, 2011

Breaking the Vessel (7)—Exile and Response

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] Parisian scholarship
[b] Sunzi bingfa
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.

Exile and Response 
[c] Song Shenzong (r. 1068-1085)
Sima Guang had lost. He had argued that government should be limited, and should focus on protecting the economic welfare of the people. His rival Wang Anshi sought to transform the political landscape with a series of innovations called the New Laws, which included loans to farmers and a fundamental rethinking of everything from taxation to border policy. I hesitate to ask whether or not this sounds familiar. If it does, keep your interpretive focus; let's just let the historical issues unfold around us. It would be a very serious mistake to “identify” with either camp. It was 900 years ago, and events today (in both China and the rest of the world) are profoundly different. Don’t assume that Sima (or Wang) was “right.” We should know by now that the study of history is rarely that straightforward. Life is complicated…and history more so. What we gain in perspective “after the fact,” we lose in precise knowledge of just about every detail that would have mattered at the time. Sima and Wang are historical actors, not heroes. Deal with it.

[d] Wang Anshi (1021-1085)
So, he lost. By 1070, Sima Guang realized that the new emperor, wasn’t listening, and that he must cede control of state politics to his rival.  As the balmy early autumn weather in Kaifeng began to turn colder, Sima Guang—at fifty years of age, one of the most talented scholars and government officials of his generation—packed his bags (with the help of able servants) and moved to a self-imposed exile in the ancient capital of Luoyang, about two hundred kilometers from the current center of power.  Sima Guang had lost a pivotal political battle, but he was determined to show that his approach was correct. Indeed, he felt it to the very core of his being. He was beginning a period of exile, and he was planning a response. There is both a particular historical matter and a broader theoretical issue here. Check the link.

[e] Luoyang (Henan Province)
Sima Guang was not going into hiding. He hardly eschewed politics, and he did not shy away from pointing out what he regarded as the failed policies of his rival (he was meticulously careful never to criticize the emperor, though, and that strategy served him well).  Although he stayed in-tune with the politics of his day, by far the greatest part of Sima’s time in exile was spent in reflection. He and his fellow conservatives enjoyed their intellectual freedom, on the one hand, while bemoaning their loss of influence, on the other. They drank wine, wrote poetry, and engaged in a highly refined form of what students often call "partying." Luoyang was a happening place in the 1070s—at least if you were out of power and fabulously wealthy.   

[f] The gift that keeps on giving
Sima Guang took things a step further though. Feeling deeply the loss of his position and voice of influence, he sought to show, in a clear—even permanent—fashion, just how right he was, and how wrong were his critics.  He settled down in Luoyang and began work on what would become one of the greatest historical and managerial works China would ever encounter—the Comprehensive Mirror for Aid in Ruling. You see, the Comprehensive Mirror is a product of resentment and brooding. Don't go rushing to the Cambridge History of China to check on this; you won't find it. It is my point—and that is why you are reading here. Most books about Chinese historical writing stress Sima's wide vision, talent, and research skill. I do not deny any of those. My point is that several dozen scholars in Chinese history before his time had that going for them. Nothing truly monumental ever got written since the second century of the Common Era. No, Sima was ticked (other word choices are possible), and he channeled his energy toward the Comprehensive Mirror

The greatest management work of all time is the product of profound resentment. That's my story.

[g] Literati leisure
The time had come for Sima Guang to channel all of his ambition and talent into more than a decade of hard work and...drinking and painting (we'll discuss that later). The creation of the sublime text that Mao would admire took place in political exile and amidst material abundance. He was wise not to criticize the emperor. Shenzong (following his father's lead) gave him thousands of historical materials from the imperial collection, and the resources (not unlike a very sizable research grant) to hire five talented assistants over the course of many years. His "failure" was political, not intellectual or social.

[h] "Chapter" fifty of the "Abridged" Mirror
Sima's work on the Comprehensive Mirror in the 1070s was the logical continuation of a life of learning and action that began in his father’s study, with a book in his hands that—one fateful afternoon—he exchanged for a rock.  Writing his great history would take him seventeen years, with the help of five talented assistants.  He worked to create a definitive text that made clear, to his mind, that his was the correct perspective, and that those who failed to heed the lessons of history would always be doomed to failure.  It was beautifully researched, and the examples pointed toward the lessons of ruling the complex enterprise that was the Chinese state. As we have seen, even those who loathed Sima's politics admired his historiography. If you have read a little history written by partisans, you will understand that such an outcome is difficult to achieve. That it has lasted for almost a millennium is nothing short of stunning. For many of us, Sima got it all wrong politically...and much right historically. What that might mean for management thought is something we will pursue on these pages in the coming weeks.

[i] Roadmap of revenge
Indeed, Sima himself saw his time in exile as a chance to build for the future.  After his resignation from court, Sima Guang was in no way willing to concede that his place in the great issues of the day was lost.  In the poems and essays that he wrote in Luoyang, there is a distinct self-consciousness of his place in a long tradition of Chinese officials who had been temporarily forced from office, only to gather themselves to return triumphantly—with rightness on their sides—to the political stage.  

Several admiring sources speak of Sima Guang’s devotion to a life of study in preparation for this task and, indeed, he supplemented his work on the Comprehensive Mirror with research on diverse classics, from the earliest writings of Chinese divination to the “Divided Schools” of thought that dominated early Chinese history.  In a poem from his exile in the 1070s, Sima writes of gardens, of classics, and of careful study in preparation for later service.  He was determined that his view would prevail.

I emulate the classical scholar Dong Zhongshu
While mastering the classics he maintained deep seclusion.
Although his house had a vast garden
He did not look out on it for three years.
Evil conversation far from his hearing
He was full of sagely thoughts.
When his completed work was carried to the audience hall,
The divided schools of thought began to melt away.

He was determined to live his period in exile and write an influential book that would vindicate him.  Vindication, he was convinced, would come with time.

Tuesday, April 12
Breaking the Vessel (8)—Luoyang Longing
Talented, middle-aged, wealthy...and nowhere to go. We'll explore Sima Guang's life and longings in Luoyang. Over the course of fifteen years, he painted, wrote, held parties, hiked the trails outside of the city and explored the famous grottoes. Imagine a fifteen year sabbatical (nicely funded) leading up to just one more year of service. He didn't know how the future would play out, of course, but we'll follow him around his city of exile as the Comprehensive Mirror grows and grows (grew and grew).
See you tomorrow.

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