The blessings of Confucius

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 15 January, 2004, 12:00am

Philip Yeung Kwong-chung began his article ('The curse of Confucius', January 3) with a question: 'Does Confucianism still matter to Chinese in the 21st century?' Then he spent three quarters of his essay condemning the things that the rulers in China have done in using Confucianism for their own interest.

What matters, more than ever, to the 21st-century Chinese is that Confucius gave us a viable entrepreneurial model, a life management design that works, a set of leadership attributes and a set of human relationship values that are effective.

On entrepreneurship: this is a mix of creativity, risk-taking, the ability to see and decide what is appropriate and what works and to act accordingly. Creativity is making new combinations with old elements from your memory bank. Taking a risk is betting your farm and sometimes your company or even your life. Appropriateness is deciding what works. You can find all of these attributes manifested in the life of Confucius and his teachings.

Confucius was an entrepreneur in that he lived an entrepreneurial life. He took old ideas from books, visited masters and created his new brand of government and lifestyle philosophy. He also had a business model - he was in the business of providing administrative services. The rulers at that time were the only meaningful employers. Confucius developed competence in his tool-kit - the six skills: etiquette, music, archery, riding, calligraphy and mathematics. He taught all his students to be competent in the six skills: at the time all that one needed to be an administrator.

He went to battle with his lord and was in front-line command of the army. He risked his life travelling from dukedom to dukedom trying to get a ruler who would implement his political philosophy. Confucius' teaching was full of management insights that work. He taught that the people (citizens) come first, then the ruler - the servant leader. He laid emphasis on what works, a concept of appropriateness, and middle-of-the-road - a guideline I have used all my life as a successful entrepreneur.

When there was no market for his administration policy, he appropriately became less ambitious and set up the first ever school for commoners, teaching future administrators and leaders - truly entrepreneurial.

On life design and management: Learn the values from the classics, develop clarity, set your goals, work hard on competence, be sincere and trustworthy, be kind and forgiving to all around you, learn from the people around you (be open minded), learn to judge what works, put your life in order, put your house in order . . . train yourself to be a leader and be ready to serve.

What better life design and management plan could there be than that? Confucius had absolute clarity on what he wanted and how his philosophy would work and he lived it with courage and passion and tried to get others to follow.

On leadership values: Be kind to your people, try to do the appropriate things, treat them with respect, use your intelligence, be trustworthy and live life with courage.

What better basic qualities could we wish to see in the leaders in any organisation?

Yeung lamented that China has not been vigorous in the past, but who would dare to say that China is not a vigorous nation in the 21st century? Who would dare to say that Hong Kong was not a vigorous city during the last century or will not continue to be so in this century? And to say that the Chinese in San Francisco, New York, Bangkok, Manila, Jakarta, Singapore, Kuala Lumpur, Sydney, London, Paris, Toronto, Vancouver and elsewhere are not a vigorous lot would surely be an insult.

Hong Kong is not the deviant society in relation to Confucian values. Hong Kong is the norm. It is Singapore, whose government interferes with its people's means and goals, that is the deviant from the free entrepreneurial values of Confucius. The mainland is full of burgeoning entrepreneurs who are, knowingly or unknowingly, putting into practice the Confucian entrepreneurial and leadership values.

No other culture has such a giant of entrepreneurial thinking, life management and leadership skills. After 2,000 years, we can still count on Kung Fu-tze's cultural DNA wherever Chinese values are passed from parents to children. Once we understand this, we will have no problem understanding why we Chinese are brought up with a cultural DNA that is favourable to entrepreneurship. Not all of us will be entrepreneurs, but enough of us will to make a difference and create economic growth for the rest of the world.

English-teacher Yeung should re-examine the teachings of Confucius through this new lens and teach our children how to be entrepreneurs by taking what works and discarding what does not work.

PO CHUNG, Co-founder and Chairman Emeritus, Asia Pacific, DHL International (Hong Kong)