Monday, December 8, 2008

A classic piece of Chinese political philosophy & my interpretation

In one of our early classes, we had a lot of discussion about the relationship between a leader and his followers.I was then reminded of a well-accepted notion in Chinese political philosophy, which says: The relationship between a leader and his people is comparable to that between boat and water: water can contain a boat, and it can also capsize a boat. Derived fromA Proposal to the Emperor:Ten Notions,this boat-and-water notion dated back to Tang dynasty(618–907). It was authored by a senior government official named WEI Zheng, who was renowned for his righteousness and straightforwardness. As suggested by the title, WEI Zheng was appealing to the then emperor,LI Shi-min, pointing out ten things LI should keep in mind in order to make the state prosperous and stable.WEI's suggestions were well-received by LI, who kept the essay on his desk as a motto.

I first encountered this piece in my classic Chinese literature class as a freshman in high school.Impressed by its literary merit,I learned the whole piece by heart, which is no more than 450-Chinese characters-long,succinct and pertinent.However, only after our leadership theory class did i come to recognize the essay for its merits in addressing important aspects of leadership. Here i'd like to share with you this thought-provoking piece of literature. I hope you'll enjoy it as much as i do.(I spent a good amount of time translating it into English. Hopefully my translation can preserve its original strength in argumentation:)

A Proposal to the Emperor—Ten Notions

To make a tree grow better, one must reinforce its root; to make a river flow farther, one must clear its source; to make a state stable and prosperous, one must found it on virtue and morality. You don’t grow a tree by cutting off its root, nor do you vitalize a stream by blocking its spring. That’s common sense. By the same token, dwelling in peace and prosperity, Your Majesty should nonetheless be prepared for potential hard times and exercise economy. Otherwise, it would be impossible to build an empire as stable as prosperous.

Previous dynasties have witnessed the rise and fall of scores of emperors. Although many of them did reign with conscience and morality at the beginning, few could stick to the end. Why did they fail? I guess it’s because: in case of plight, a leader often treats his followers wholeheartedly, sparing no effort to consolidate them and mobilize them. However, once the difficulty is overcome and the common cause is realized, the leader is tempted to indulge in the hard-won success with a larger ego. Sincerity and sensibility can unite conflicting parties, while egocentricity and indifference attenuate bonds as strong as that between father and son. Sometimes a leader can get his way by overawing or coercing his followers. However, this will only encourage shrewd followers, who act to shun punishment rather than act out of conscience. A leader can never trade coercion for cohesion: all he harvests is superficial support,let alone respect. The relationship between a leader and his people is comparable to that between boat and water: water can contain a boat, and it can also capsize a boat. This is one thing leaders should always bear in mind.
Here I have “ten thoughts” to propose:

(1) Whenever you find an object desirable to possess, you should remind yourself of complacency instead of pursuing it straightaway.
(2) Before mobilizing extensive manpower to construct new palaces, think about moderation and necessity. People need peace, so try not to bother them too much.
(3) Aloft in position, Your Majesty is susceptible to aloofness. So always bear in mind the idea of humbleness and modesty, and never stop self-development.
(4) To avoid self-conceit and egocentricity, remember that the formation of a broad river is the joint effort of numerous brooks and streams.
(5) If you want to go hunting, go no more than three times a year.
(6) To prevent from slack attitudes, you should attend to a task with uniform diligence from beginning to end.
(7) To avoid being under-informed, you should be open to criticism and advice from your subordinates.
(8) If you fear that some ill-willed flatterers and immoral forces may erode the establishment, being a moral role model yourself will help to get rid of them.
(9, 10) When you award or punish people, don’t entitle to them more than what they deserve. Don’t simply award a person for pleasing you or punish one for annoying you.

If you can exercise these ten notions and glorify the Nine Virtues (loyalty, trustworthiness, respect, firmness, flexibility, harmony, stability, righteousness, and obedience), then good results will follow. Recruit the able ones into your cabinet, fit each into the right position and follow the wise advice. In this way, the smart will capitalize on their talent, the brave stretch every muscle, the kind-hearted spread their kindness and the loyal exercise fidelity. By delegating to the right persons, Your Majesty would reign effectively and effortlessly!

My interpretation:

The landscape in which an ancient emperor reigned is very different from what most organizational leaders face in a modern democracy.However, different social contexts see something in common in effective leaders.Some of WEI Zheng's theories are still applicable to today's leadership.In A Proposal to the Emperor:Ten Notions, WEI highlighted the moralities of leadership. Believing morality to be the cornerstone of a state,he advocated that an emperor must in the first place be a moral role model for his people, demonstrating virtues and justice.A leader should not coerce his followers by any means.Intimadation and suppression may work for some time, but it will not do in a long run.Not only because it's not a productive way to run an organization, it will eventually undermine the leadership.In case of an empire, people may uprise and overthrow the throne,in the same way water capsizes a boat. Here i see an objection to Theory X.

The second important thing a leader does is to delegate. Instead of attending to every triviality, a leader should delegate tasks to the right persons. This requires the leader to have a deep understanding of human nature, as well as expertise in certain fields.For the emperor,he needed to be familiar with military affairs, public administration and economics.

Some background information:

Tang dynasty (618–907) marked one of the most prosperous times in Chinese history. It succeeded the short-lived Sui dynasty and developed a successful form of government and administration on the Sui model. Besides military prowess and national wealth, Tang also stimulated a cultural and artistic flowering that amounted to a golden age. The creative vigor of Tang let it be a more open society, welcoming foreigners in its urban life from Japan, Korea, and Vietnam, as well as from Persia and West Asia.
The second emperor of Tang, LI Shi-min, known as T'ai-tsung, succeeded to the throne in 626 by murdering two brothers and forcing the abdication of his father, but he became one of the greatest emperors China has known. WEI Cheng was one of LI Shi-min’s Confucian moralist mentors. He had served a rival rebel regime, and later took on the role as Li Shi-min’s public conscience (John King Fairbank, 1992 & Encyclopedia Britannica, 2009).