Classic Chinese literature and what you can learn from it

Isn’t it amazing that over 5000 years China seems to be a constant that never really changes? It is one of the oldest cultures on this Earth. Check out this Histomap, where you can clearly see a constant red area from top to bottom.

Chinese emperors and scholars were always keen to keep records – on state dealings, on philosophy, on politics, on warfare, on pretty much every subject you can think of. And they also liked poetry and songs, even tried to write and recite them as a challenge. This knowledge from thousands of years is still relevant today, which makes you think people never change and make the same mistakes over and over again. Maybe because we try to look forward, try to find new ways of doing things, but keep on falling into the same traps our ancestors went into.

However, the lessons these ancient texts contain are exceedingly interesting and whatever technological improvements were made over the past thousands of years, they still hold a lot of learnings in them.

We all know about Confucius (or Kung-Tze, 孔夫子, Pinyin: Kǒng Fūzǐ), whose wisdom lives on in quotes and phrases passed on by his pupils and followers. Confucius emphasized on the importance of education and also found that harmony between ones self and surroundings is the way of happiness. The highest values for him were humanity, justice, filial piety and ritual – all in a social context. His goal was educating to be a high-minded person and to become a better person.

Following in the footsteps of Confucius is Mencius (孟子, Pinyin: Mèngzǐ), who reformed the wisdom of Confucius and built on it. Mengzis view was, that a person is good by nature and surroundings and emotions might lead that person astray. Mengzi also states that an unjust leadership may be cut short by the subjects via revolution (principle of Gémìng (革命) – change of mandate). Several of his views were pretty radical and contrary to the views of Mozi (墨翟, known in the West as Micius). Mozi thought self-reflection and not obediance would lead to self-knowledge and therefore becoming a good person. This would be achieved through asceticism and renouncing material and spiritual extravagances.

There is also Sun Zi (or Sun Tzu, 孫子, Pinyin: Sūnzǐ), who was a military strategist and general. His book 孫子兵法 (Pinyin: Sūnzǐ bīngfǎ, translated as „The Art of War„) gives strategic planning on war and also states that war is a necessary instrument to keep a state intact and to defend the welfare of the people. These strategies were the basis for other famous Chinese military generals and it was viewed as a guideline. Today The Art of War is even used metaphorically in business management.

Another military strategist, whose name is still known today, is Zhuge Liang (諸葛亮, also known as Kongming). His talent were strategems, where he anticipated his opponents moves and therefore confuse and beat them with a cunning plan. The story of his service for Liu Bei (劉備, also known as Xuande) is depicted in 三國演義 (Pinyin: Sānguó Yǎnyì, translated as „Romance of the Three Kingdoms“ or short The Three Kingdoms) by Luo Guanzhong (羅貫中). The also famously known Cao Cao (曹操, also known as Mengde) is the counterpart in this story about the last years of the Han dynasty under emperor Xian, when Cao Cao battled with Liu Bei and Sun Quan for hegemony. Several movies and TV-series were made based on this book, most famously known the two-part John Woo movie Red Cliff (2008) and The Romance of Three Kingdoms (1995). All in all the stories are very entertaining and it gives great insight into the history of China, politics, leadership, warfare and strategems.

Talking about strategems: Tan Daoji (檀道濟) is best known for his 36 strategems (三十六計), which today is used as the basis for a lot of business management handbooks. No wonder – they actually provide useful hints on how to succeed, whether in business, in war, in politics or just life itself by making use of these strategems.

Whether philosophy, military strategy or classic novels – all provide useful insights into a culture that survived for more than 5000 years. This passed down knowledge is the most useful and still applicable wisdom and guideline for anyone, who whishes to become a better child, parent, partner, leader, manager, politician or simply a high-minded person.

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