Ancient Wisdom for Modern Leaders

A review of The Art of Attainment: Quotations from Chinese Wisdom, compiled by Yang Tianwen, translated with notes by Tony Bushen. Shanghai: Shanghai Press and Publishing Development Company, 2012.

This very slender volume (only 75 pages, with 28 more pages of Notes on Sources) contains a wealth of wisdom for anyone in a position of influence. It consists of hundreds of pithy maxims culled from the vast corpus of ancient Chinese classics and later literature on how to succeed as a leader, and deserves repeated rumination and reflection. These are arranged into three chapters on “The Maintenance of the State,” “Management,” and “Warfare and Strategy,” and sub-divided into smaller categories within each chapter. A few highlights from each section:

Chapter I: The Maintenance of the State

People as the Basis: “A state cannot stand without the confidence of the people.” Confucius. Benevolent Government: “Where justice prevails over personal advantage there is order, where advantage defeats justice there is confusion.” Xunzi.

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Enacting the Law: “The law does not favor the noble, nor custom the evildoer.” Han Feizi

Implementing the Law: “An official does not favor his friends nor is the law lenient to his intimates.” Shenzi

Virtue amongst Officials: “Self-seeking causes uncontrollable discontent and this damages the integrity of the state.” Xun Yue: The Mirror of History

Effective Administration: “Matters of state should be discussed openly.” Book of Rites

Reform: “If two stringed instruments are not in tune, then they must be re-strung.” Ban Gu: Book of Han

Chapter II: Management

Knowledge of people: “Flowery speech and winning ways are seldom accompanied by virtue.” Confucius: Analects

The Search for Talent: “Honesty first and then ability.” Xunzi

Skill in Appointment: “To hold office without virtue is to foist evil upon the people.” Mencius

Wisdom: “Those with deep cravings are shallow in spirit.” Zhuangzi

Caution: “Misfortune in all matters stems from the miniscule, thus one should beware of cumulative error”. Chang Hao

Accepting Advice: “Only those who have reason will accept unwelcome advice.” Chen Shou: Records of the Three Kingdoms

Seizing Opportunity: “Do not lose opportunity, it will not come again; opportunity offered and not taken brings harm instead.” Guoyu

Forecasting and Preparation: “To plan for trouble in untroubled times prevents anxiety in times of trouble.” Su Zhe Limits: “Knowing when to stop prevents peril.” Laozi

Chapter III: Warfare and Strategy

On War: “A swift victory is better than a long war.” Sunzi: The Art of War

On Command: “The day a general receives his orders he forgets his family, within the military regime he forgets his relatives but at the drumbeat he must forget his life.” Sima Qian: Record of History

On Attack: “Do not obstruct a fleeing army nor seal off a surrounded one.” Sunzi: The Art of Warfare

On Warfare: “In warfare you must explore the enemy’s strengths and weaknesses and attack his vulnerability.” Wuzi

These tidbits should be enough to whet your appetite. Not only China’s new leaders, but all those who wish to understand the Chinese mind, would do well to ponder these lessons from several thousand years of careful reflection.