Chinese businesses should rely on Confucius, not Steve Jobs, for management tips

Looking up to Steve.
Looking up to Steve.
Image: Getty Images / ChinaFotoPress
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Here’s a tip for the thousands of aspiring Chinese entrepreneurs and CEOs. In a country where bookstores are stacked with translations of foreign management and business books—including Steve Job’s biography and Crack the Talmud: 101 Jewish Business Rules—dusting off a copy of the Analects of Confucius might be the better approach. Chinese author Yu Hua, in an editorial for the New York Times this week, writes that Confucianism and old Daoist customs banned under Mao Zedong as vestiges of China’s imperial past are not just enjoying a revival but proving effective at rallying Chinese people.

Yu writes, “The four olds, so long vilified, all of a sudden became jewels of traditional culture… Practices that used to be criticized as feudal have become, in the hands of some shrewd Communist officials, favored management techniques.”

Yu recalls a district chief in southern China who said that feng shui experts helped calm residents angry at the local government for moving the graves of their relatives to make more space. (Some Chinese believe that caring for one’s ancestors’ graves has an effect on one’s own fate.) Similarly, county officials in Henan province stopped locals stealing material from a building site by putting up a sign that said “For temple construction,” appealing to an old belief that taking from a temple is bad luck.

But it’s not just government officials who can use age-old Chinese values. Books like Management Wisdom of the Book of Changes (link in Chinese), based on the I Ching, and Chinese Management Diaries (Chinese)—based on the writings of an emperor from the Tang dynasty, a 19th century businessman, and Mao, the master strategist, as well as others—point to a budding trend in Chinese management literature that draws on ancient Chinese philosophy, says Paper Republic, a blog that watches China’s publishing industry. Maybe China’s next best selling management book will be how to turn Confucius’ ideal of li, a respect for ritualinto just plain lirun, profit.