Opinion / You Nuo

Modern China needs some old thinking
By You Nuo (China Daily)
Updated: 2006-07-31 05:32

Some readers wrote to me after my column was published two weeks ago about introducing some traditional wisdom into the curriculum of Chinese schools of business administration.

Apart from debating how the modern Chinese should define what exactly their traditional wisdom is, there are also those who challenged the need. Confucianism, which most Chinese agree forms the main body of the nation's traditional moral teaching, is irrelevant to modern business, they said.

Three points were raised. One was that Confucianism is very old, a creation of some 2,500 years ago, a time when people had no idea about what modern business would be like.

The second point was that Confucius, who ran China's very first school for commoners, in fact never told his students how to run a business. He never even used word "management."

The third point was that for the past 2,500 years, Confucian teachings never seemed to help China develop its economy, never mind one based mainly on industry and services.

These are frequent arguments that people make when discussing the significance of traditional wisdom, Confucianism in particular, in China today. However, the fact that people continue to argue about it is enough evidence of the lasting influence Confucianism has on this society.

Despite all the scorn poured on the opening of classes in Confucianism in some top Chinese business schools, they did attract an audience and considerable tuition payments. According to media reports, some of the attendees were quite successful private entrepreneurs.

Whether those financially successful people are really serious about brushing up their moral education is not the major issue here. The key is that there is much more discussion of Confucianism in today's China. It is a debate that will probably continue for a very long time.

But this is nothing strange. Confucianism is something very Chinese and irreplaceable in this society. It is not science, or anything from which an analytical model can be developed. However, it is the main part of this society's moral tradition, or how people tell right from wrong.

No society can afford to build an economy without a moral foundation. It is hard to imagine millions of people selling and buying from each other everyday without sharing a basic, although often tacit, agreement of how a good business person should behave.

It should also be pointed out that Confucianism is not old or irrelevant. The first reason for which a righteous person should make self-criticism of himself, as dictated by the Analects, is when he has compromised his credit, or failed to honour his word, in dealing with others.

Of course, a moral system is not something with which people invent things. Engineers did not have to refer to the Analects as they worked, as in Ming Dynasty, on their ocean-going ships to Africa, just as engineers are working on China's space programme.

Yet a moral system does offer immense help to an economy, and more so to a transitional economy. When the rule of law is weak, and many rules that were made in the era of the planned economy are obsolete, a return to traditional teachings is a natural choice for many people.

Admittedly, there is no such expression as management in Confucian teachings, just as there is no such expression as competition in the old guidebook for almost every business person in China, the famous Art of War by Sun Tzu. But people will gain from these old texts when they combine them with their own experiences.

Email: younuo@chinadaily.com.cn

(China Daily 07/31/2006 page4)