ARTICLES in Strategy

Wang An-Shih's

Prof. Dr. Ong Hean-Tatt 5th October 2000 wanas00a
previously written: 31st July 1999 wanas99b

Confucianism: World's Most Enduring Management Philosophy



The Chinese civilisation is the longest surviving civilisation, enduring since the dawn of human history 6,000 years ago. The Chinese philosophers have repeatedly long pondered over every major issue concerning humanity. We should tap this valuable accumulated experience and wisdom about strategic business and management leadership.

Confucianism has been touted as the basis of the Chinese industriousness underlying the propserity and success of the Chinese down the ages. Confucianism could be divided into at least three major schools. The first, traditional Confucianism, was attributed to Chu Hsi. His contemporary, Wang An Shih, the famous philosopher-reformer and prime minister of the Sung dynasty, was said to originate the reform school. The third school is Neo-Confucianism, said to be founded by Wang Yang Ming, the Ming philosopher-general.

It was Wang An Shih who gave much thoughts, as dictated by his official career, to the practicality of organisational management of the country. In 1058, he presented his famous Wan Yen Shu, "Memorial of Ten Thousand Words" to Jen Tsung, the Sung emperor, systematically outlining proposals for the uplifting of the nation. Modern business and strategic management leaders could learn from the Wan Yen Shu useful practical principles about organisational excellence.

Prelude: Winning over the Power

The Wan Yen Shu was a systematic three sections presentation of the major management issues then facing the country during the reign of Sung emperor Jen Tsung, viz:

  • Section 1: Introduction
    • Introductory praise of Emperor Jen Tsung
    • Reference to the ancient experience in government
  • Section 2: The Main Issue
    • Issue of sufficient capable officials
  • Section 3: The Recommendations
    • Issue of proper training of officials
    • Issue of proper maintenance of officials
    • Correct basis of selection of officials
    • Correct method of appointing officials

Typical in the many memorials to the imperial court, the memorial gave due praise to the emperor's achievement. This is not a lip service flattery. The strategic point is that it is necessary to win the ear of the person before inducing the person to act. An initial rebuke will prematurely curtail the impact and hence effectiveness of a presentation. Therefore, it is necessary to "beard the tiger" or psychologically win over the power.

To further win the emperor over to the intent of the memorial, Wang An Shih made reference to the accumulated wisdom of the past. He specially quoted the great Confucian master Mencius: "When a ruler is sincerely loving, and generally known to be so, but the effects of his benevolent disposition are not realised by the people in any adequate way, it must be because the method of government is not moulded after the pattern of the ancient rulers."

The reference to the past accumulated experience reflects that Wang An Shih had made serious research to what he wanted to say. People should make serious investigations before pronouncing serious statements or instructions. Sun Tzu opens up his war manual by stressing on the necessity of serious deliberations before launching on a major venture:

  • The art of war is of vital importance to the State. A matter of life or death; the road to safety or ruin. It is essential that it has to be studied thoroughly. Sun Tzu 1:1-2.

Thus, an essential feature of Confucian management, reflecting and underlying the legendary Confucian industriousness, is that there must be proper serious systematic planning.

Sufficient Capable Officials

At that time of Wang An Shih, there was a general feeling that something was wrong with the country. Emperor Jen Tsung shared this general feeling and was looking for positive suggestions to uplift the country. Wang An Shih identified the key issue underlying the state of the country: "My observation leads me to suggest that there never has been such a scarity of capable men as exist today in the service of the State. Should it be urged that these men do exist, but that they are hidden away in the country districts..."

Great philosophers have repeatedly noted and stated down history, nations and organisations would succeed or fail owing to the calibre of their men. Wang An Shih elsewhere noted that great dynasties often failed at mid point when rulers lured by the seeming peace and prosperity of the nation began to neglect paying attention to capable men. The ancient philosopher and Minister of Justice, Kao Yao, told Emperor Ta Yu, founder of the Hsia dynasty (circa 2205-1700 B.C.):

  • "All depend upon one's capacity for recognising men, and one ability's to placate the people."

The same emphasis on capable men is noted by Sun Tzu:

  • The general who advances without coveting fame and withdraws without fearing disgrace but only intent to protect the people and do good service for his ruler, is the jewel of the State. Sun Tzu 10:24.

Having stressed on the key issue of capable men, the Wan Yen Shu went on to systematically outline the four steps for ensuring that capable men are recruited into and empowered for the service of the nation.

Step 1: Continual Instruction

The starting point of having an adequate pool of capable men is that the education system must be able to prepare such men. Wang An Shih stated, "A man's capacity for government is best educed by specialisation and ruined by too great a variety of subjects to be studied. So we find that the ancient rulers in their search for capable men went to the factories for their artisans, to the farms for their agriculturists, to the markets for their commercial men, and to the schools for their officials." Practicality is a necessary prerequisite of each educational subject taught.

Translated to modern business, it means that your staff must be properly trained and equipped with the relevant knowledge. Other Confucian texts emphasise that continual ongoing training is essential to growing efficiency and productivity of the person. Thus, the Confucian perspective recognises that it is necessary for a person to have opportunities to develop growing or new skills. It is expected that the superior should actively make openings and provide opportunities for his subordinates to grow. Many organisations make the mistake of not providing extant staff with ongoing training.

Step 2: Maintenance of Officials

Maintenance of officials, that is the reimbursement of staff, is the controversial issue, both in Wang An Shih's time as well as now. Much of Wang An Shih's advice on the maintenance issue seeks ways to control corruption and extravagance, indicating that the organisations should beware how these twin evils can sap their strengths and affect their downfalls.

He listed various warnings about corruption and extravagance in the maintenance issue:

  • "In increasing scale the salaries advanced, assuring each official of whatever grade sufficient to keep him honest, self-respecting and free from corruption."
  • "... once you have satisfied a man's natural desire for sufficient financial resources, it is essential that he should be restrained by the ordinances of propriety, otherwise he will proceed to a reckless extravagance in everything."

To prevent corruption and extravagance, Wang An Shih advised, "By this imposition of the restraints of Propriety and the penalties of the Law, they sought to brign all alike into subservience and submission. But they not only relied upon the power of prohibition and inspection, they afforded in their own person an example of sincere and sympathetic conduct... The ruler gave a sincere example of living out his precepts, and those of high rank learned to avoid doing teh things of which he disapproved. The idea was that thus the majority of the people at large would need no penalties to keep them from unworthy practices."

The emphasis is that the example of the leader rather than the penalty of the Law should be what would keep people from corruption and extravagance. The great Sage Emperor Shun (circa 2300 B.C.) was particular that people should be guided by benevolence rather than punishment and that the ruler's example is critical to the behaviour of the people.

It is the Confucian perception that the people's knowledge is limited and hence laws cannot be too many. One Confucian text actually points out that a law should not be implemented if the people cannot be educated about it, a contrary viewpoint to modern legalism that ignorance is no plea. The great sage Lao Tzu also warned against multiplicity of laws as this is counterproductive and would actually lead to, in Lao Tzu's words, "more thieves and robbers".

The Confucian emphasis is an astute recognition that the general mass tend to do things by imitation of their leaders. Thus, rampantness in corruption and extravagance in officials and the people are reflections of the failure of the leadership example. For the people merely imitate what their leaders do.

It is in the issue of maintenance of officials that leadership example is most critical. Sun Tzu describes these sterling qualities of leaders:

  • The Commander is the general's qualities of virtues of wisdom, sincerity, benevolence, courage and strictness. Sun Tzu 1:9.

Step 3: Selection of Officials

The modern selection process generally constitutes scrutinisation of application documents and followed, where necesssary, by face to face interviews. The selected person is usually on probation. In principle this is similiar to the Confucian guideline for selection: "Investigation was then made as to the real character and ability of such men, and each was then given a period of probation in some position suited to his capacity."

Instead of only documents, the traditional Chinese relied on personal recommendations. The village chief recommended to the district chief. In turn the district chief recommended to the provincial chief, who then recommended to the emperor. Personal referees are usually indicated in the modern application formats, although paper qualifications and experience tend to be given more weight. They are however different methods of assessing the capabilities of the person according to the differing times.

What is more intrinsically significant about the Confucian selection process in being different from the modern selection process was the Confucian additional emphasis on moral character, beside taking into consideration his technical ability. Weighing for moral character is singularly missing from the modern selection process.

There are interesting implications about the Chinese emperor having with him the "Books of the Worthy and Capable". The traditional recommendations for selection of people were in two categories. One, for the Book of the Capable, covers people seen as having skills in various fields. In modern terms, this refers to technical skills. The other Book of the Worthy includes those recommended for being filial, helpful to neighbours, etc. The capable people would be assigned tasks in relevant technical areas. But the headships of various departments could be filled only by those from the Book of Worthy! The capable people would be supervised by the worthy people, never the other way round!

The Confucian insight is that good performance depends on technical capability, but proper regulation can only be achieved by morally worthy persons. It is a recognition that resources could tempt those in charge of them. Thus those regulating resources must be morally upright. Greedy desire is the greatest threat to enduring organisational excellence and the remedy is to ensure regulation is in the hand of the morally worthy:

  • What power is it... that drives man to act sinfully, even unwillingly, as if powerlessly? It is greedy desire and wrath, born of passion, the great evil, the sum of destrucion: this is the enemy of the soul. Bhagavad Gita 3:36-37.

Down the ages, wise men know that emotional desires and greed easily destroy knowledge. Therefore, to safeguard the resources of the nation for the people, the ancients never cease to insist on the moral character of the leader.

Step 4: Appointing Officials

We have noted earlier that Wang An Shih insisted on the officer being placed on probation and that he must receive continual on-job training. This is a recognition that at the beginning the candidate possesses certain talents which would allow him to do certain things, but that with time the person is capable of growing and developing further to achieve greater things.

The appointment of the person must be such that the person can grow in the job to greater responsibilities. This way, the person will be able to contribute even more to the eventual efficiency and productivity of the organisation. Thus, the working conditions should be maximised to allow such growing development of the person's skills and responsibilities.

Wang An Shih listed some working conditions which could ruin the appointment of the person:

  • "Then I must refer to the current practice of frequent transfer of officials from one place to another. The fact that men are not allowed to remain in one office for any length of time prevents their superiors from getting to know them or their ability in any real sense. Again, those in inferior positions, because they have not had time to learn to respect superiors, are mostly unwilling to obey them. A worthy man has not sufficient time to bring his plans to fruition, and an unworthy man does not remain long enough in any one post for his evil disposition to manifest itself. There are other evils attendant upon this system, such as the burden which devolves upon the local population in the constant receptions of new officials and the farewells to old occupants. There are too many defects in accounting and the keeping of records for which these constant changes are responsible."

  • "Another defect I must now stress is that after they are appointed to office, they are not trusted to carry out their duties. An official is hedged about by a multitudes of minute prohibitions and hindrances, so that he simply cannot carry out any ideas he may chance to have... It is equally futile to expect efficient government if, having found the right men in their proper positions, you hedge them about by a multitude of minute and harassing prohibitions."

  • "After the downfall of T'ang, there was gradual deterioration through the period of the Five Dynasties. Then the ilitary men were in power, and all the worthy men retired into private life... Disasters of that type are brought about by the absence of capable men in office."

The last point above identifies the malaise in several countries, that of military and even political powers preventing capable people taking up office. Wang An Shih sought to curb the influence of powerful princes and families in the affairs of the nation, in order to allow capable officers the chance to develop the nation. What Wang An Shih had identified is that many organisations, once they employed officers, would then tend to let the officers grope around to find their way within the organisation. Worse still, very often, the working conditions and rules within the organisation are detrimental to proper manifestation of the talents of the men.

A more positive way to spur the officers on is to reward them well. "I mean it is the practice of the ancient rulers to treat their officers handsomely, so that all who had any intelligence and ability at all, were enabled to make good progress. But it was considered vital that the emperor, himself, should give them an example of sicnerity, and care, and devotion. This was with the idea that all might be stimulated to respond in a similar manner." Once again we see the principle noted earlier: the general mass tend to do things by imitation of their leaders.


Wang An Shih's warning in his Wan Yen Shu about the search for ogranisational excellence is of the "shortage of men of capacity in office and the impossibility of reviving the method of government adopted by the ancient rulers on that account." Capable men must be first found and then properly nutured: "If there is failure to secure the right method in regard to any one of these matters, viz., the instruction, selection, maintenance, and appointment of officials, it is sufficient to ruin the talented men of the country."

It is conceded that many influential old guards would be alarmed by the changes required. Wang An Shih stated that it would be necessary to introduce the necessary changes slowly: "Thus I came to see that by careful planning and estimating, and making the changes gradually, the large could be made small and the strong weak, without reviolts or rebellions... we should plan carefully for the changes that need to be made, estimate everything and gradually introduce the changes. Then it will be comparatively easy to carry them out."

A great deal of the Confucian management approach is the emphasis on inspiring and manipulation of human behaviour. The emperor or leader himself should provide the good example for all to follow. The Wan Yen Shu talks very little about rules and laws. While regulations by rules may be necessary these are to be downplayed and replaced wherever possible by moral example: "So in a very few years, it was feasible to govern the empire almost without the use of punishments." The underlying key principle is that, given the right empowering conditions, capable self starters require no rules to force them to exert their utmost abilities to build up the organisational excellence!

The basis of the Confucian humanistic "no rules" management approach is: the general mass tend to do things by imitation of their leaders.


File created: 3rd February 1999 modified: 7th February 2001