Thursday, July 06, 2006

Confucius Say....Stop Quoting Me, You Corporate Blowhards

Of the more recent incarnations of post-colonial cultural appropriation, I really, realllllly hate the incorporation of Chinese philosophy and religion into corporate plattitudes. I say this, yes, as an American-Asian woman who was born in the U.S. and admittedly eats fortune cookies--but also as a practicing Buddhist whose great-aunt is a Buddhist nun in Vietnam. So stop it with using The Art of War, the Analects of Confucius, and especially The Tao Te Ching to support your evil corporate policies. Confucius say, "A Man Who Uses Another's Words Is No Man--He Is A Dummy."

Okay, he didn't say that.

Over at Slate, Daniel Gross explains why business execs love to quote Chinese proverbs:

Just as China is an untapped market for American consumer-product companies, it's an untapped resource for American purveyors of business inspiration. In the 1990s and the early part of this decade, books like Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers and Sun Tzu and the Art of Business did well. The latter helped create an ongoing franchise for its author Mark McNeilly to explain the works of the Chinese writer to American middle managers.

Today, many executives quote Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu for the same reason they started exchanging their bespoke suits for business-casual khakis: They have to show that they're with it. China represents the future and is the locus of immense growth. Casually tossing Chinese proverbs into conversation shows that you're down with the latest trends, even if you haven't (yet) relocated your manufacturing capacity to Shenzhen.

The aphorisms lend a rational, easily understandable grace note to even the most complex or boring PowerPoint presentations. The challenge of any corporate wordsmith is to come up with new and interesting ways to express the same old ideas about strategy and performance. (Just try coming up with 20 different ways to say, "We want to sell more of our widgets at higher prices.")


Finally, these are contentious times. CEOs are frequently embattled in the public sphere and forced to defend their compensation, strategy, and policies. It's always nice when you can locate self-justifying bromides in timeless classics. Remember the highly successful attempt to locate support for the narcissistic pursuit of wealth in the Bible? Well, there's something in the canon of Chinese proverbs, aphorisms,
and philosophical writings for everyone. Who better summed up the argument against the welfare state than Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism: "Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime."

Of course, Westerners frequently get it wrong when they try to translate Chinese homilies for their audiences.

Everything is lost in translation.

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