Sunday, 21 April 2013

'To thrive today, think like the Chinese'

Cheong Suk-Wai meets a thinker each fortnight in The Big Idea page. This alternates with The Big Read, a fortnightly column featuring interesting books on ideas. The Chinese concept of yin-yang helps one understand the vagaries of the world: Things move from order to disorder, and the flux in between opposing forces is the way to growth and transformation.
By Cheong Suk-wai, The Straits Times, 20 Apr 2013

IN JUST one week, Boston has been bombed, gold prices have plunged, Iran has had its biggest earthquake in 50 years and a factory in Texas has blown up, causing damage so massive that the exact number of casualties could not yet be determined.

How does one make sense of, and cope with, such wanton shocks?

It helps to learn how to be comfortable with uncertainty and see life as a dynamic series of probabilities, says Chinese philosophy don Robin Wang.

In short, she adds, embrace yin-yang thinking, which "looks at the world as if it were Zhuangzi's waterfall, not Newton's clock".

She is referring to the ancient Chinese sage Zhuangzi, who was a follower of Laozi, the wise man who many think wrote the classical text Daodejing. Zhuangzi, says Prof Wang, saw life as a torrent of turbulence like cascading water.

In contrast, British scientist Isaac Newton conceived of the universe and everything in it as running like clockwork - precisely, with certainty and mechanically.

Professor Wang, who teaches philosophy at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, is an established Sinologist and author of the critically acclaimed book Yin-yang: The Way Of Heaven And Earth In Chinese Thought And Culture, which was released in September last year.

She was in Singapore recently (January-March 2013) as a visiting professor in philosophy at the Nanyang Technological University, researching how Chinese women who are Taoists think about life after death.

Yin-yang, she says, is a natural force as old as time, and is the root of all Chinese thinking about everything under the sun, from the art of war to the art of healing with herbs to the art of the bedchamber.

Indeed, the first Chinese expressed yin-yang as different positions of the sun, where yin was the shady side of the hill and yang its warmer slope.

Yin is associated with all that is feminine, cold, dark and restful while yang is allied with all that is masculine, warm, bright and laborious.

Both forces engage, complement and shape circumstances so as to bring about harmony, which agrarian Chinese civilisation prizes above all; it is, after all, the balance of sunshine and timely rain that ensures their crops grow and secures their livelihood.

Even today, she notes, China's current leaders have been using the phrase hexie shehui (harmonious society) to deal with the widening income gap and so help stabilise Chinese society.

"In yin-yang thinking, the whole is always greater than the sum of its parts," says Prof Wang. "You need both the yin in the background and the yang in the foreground to make up the big picture."

But, she stresses, "harmony is not sameness" and so she finds Laozi's idea of balance and harmony in yin-yang "too simplistic" because he neglected to consider that life is dynamic and always in flux. Better, she says, to think of harmony as being on a spectrum between order and disorder, and to think of the flux in between as the force that generates growth and enables transformation. So if one wants a harmonious society, one must not fight only for one's interests lest that tips harmony towards disorder again.

Another equally important part of yin-yang thinking is the notion of returning, not in the sense of Buddhist karma or retribution, but rather reverting to being as a child, the most authentic and natural human state.

Otherwise, adults get so caught up in their materialistic desires that they render themselves miserable, she says.

She then suggests the following questions to help those who want happier lives:
- What does life mean to you?
- How much are you driven by the desire to own things?
- Why do you desire some things and not others?
- How do you deal with those who are different from you?
- How do you consider perspectives different from yours?
- How do you socialise at your workplace?
- How flexible are you?
- What sort of person do you think you should be?
So it is that yin-yang thinking at its best is inclusive, curious about differences and welcoming of diversity, which all help people adapt even to sudden change.

The openness and compassion of yin-yang thinking, she adds, is perhaps best exemplified in the concept of guanxi (literally "relationships", but more commonly understood to mean "connections") in which networks of friends nudge an individual along to success.

When you consider the importance of social networks in today's Information Age, yin-yang thinking seems very current indeed.

Also, she notes, yin-yang is cheese to the chalk of individualism in Western philosophy, which emphasises the primacy of the self over the community and lauds self-made success, downplaying the fact that, as US President Barack Obama once pointed out, no one can succeed without some help from others.

That said, she rues how the uninformed refer to yin-yang as "yin and yang" as if the two interdependent forces were mutually exclusive. They are anything but, she asserts, because interpreting yin-yang is all a question of context.

For example, she says, those who see women as yin, belonging to all that is dark, cold, submissive and negative in general, forget that it is the woman's duty to educate her sons and so "even the emperor bows to his mother".

Also, she adds, in traditional Chinese culture, emperors would ask women for advice on lovemaking because the ancient Chinese considered the latter more skilfull in the boudoir than men.

"This means that at certain times, women can dominate circumstances, while at other times, men should dominate," says Prof Wang, who is a divorced mother of two children aged 22 and 24.

The feisty, clear-eyed don is a native of Xi'an. She got her first and Master's degrees from Peking University (better known as Beida) and secured her PhD in philosophy from the University of Wales in Cardiff before migrating to the United States in 1995 to teach at Loyola Marymount, a top private Catholic college.

She took four years to write her book on yin-yang, which has drawn rave reviews for being "masterful" in its examination of this Chinese cultural concept.

She has also given 10 talks to date on the book at Beijing's universities, including her alma mater Beida.

Somehow, she also finds time to be a Chinese cultural consultant to many American endeavours, notably on the 2010 remake of The Karate Kid movie, starring Jackie Chan and Jaden Smith.

But how popular can yin-yang thinking be in China today when in the past 30 years, the Chinese have gravitated towards and embraced capitalistic thinking?

She does not answer this question directly, but instead rails against the "consumer mentality" that has everyone popping pills the moment they feel ill.

"We are giving our bodies over to big pharmaceutical companies," she huffs. "But health is not the absence of disease; yin-yang teaches that it is all about the mind-body connection; when your body is well, you can think and act well.

"So treat your body as a garden and, in all you do, try to relate it well to your surroundings."

In an age of increasing disempowerment, that is quite an empowering thought.

THE BIG IDEA IN HISTORY: How yin-yang thinking began

THE yang in yin-yang was first mentioned in the Book Of History and The Book Of Odes (770-221BC), two of the earliest written texts on Chinese culture, the others being inscriptions on oracle bones and bronze.

At that time, yang - representing sunny spots on Earth (hence tai yang - the sun) - represented life's daily rhythms. The ancient Chinese then came to refer to yin as yang's cold, dark and still opposite.

Yin, they said, was the moon as well as life-giving water, and myths abound about women who became pregnant from just touching water.

The early Chinese worshipped the sun and one of their emperors' most important duties was to chart their calendar according to the sun's four seasons.

Then, around 5BC, the thinker Laozi turned yin-yang from just a force of nature into a philosophy proper, in which yin-yang blended with qi (energy) to give one balance and harmony.

The Daodejing - the classic text on Daoism that Laozi was thought to have written - in fact has only one mention of yin-yang. In it, it theorised about how paradoxical forces actually interacted in diverse ways to generate growth and transform circumstances.

Around this time, other thinkers also identified yin and yang in a way many will find familiar today - as two of six kinds of qi (energy), with an excess of yin being too cooling on the body, and an excess of yang making one too "heaty".

Then, in 318BC, thinkers from the Jixia Academy in the Chinese state of Qi began adapting yin-yang as a strategy for living well, be it in palaces or on farms and battlefields.

These thinkers were mostly astrologers and numerologists, who made a living by reading oracle bones and divining by the stars.

They included Zou Yan (305-240BC), who linked yin-yang thought with wuxing (five phases).

These five phases were denoted by water, which soaks and descends; fire, which blazes and ascends; metal, which obeys and changes; wood, which curves or straightens; and earth, which takes seeds and gives crops.

Water conquers fire, fire metal, metal wood, wood earth and earth water. Zou used wuxing to explain why dynasties changed by, for example, characterising the Shang dynasty as metal and the Qin dynasty as water. In doing so, he was the first to explain the changes in dynasties other than as commands from heaven.

The works of the Yin-yang school are now lost in time, so while many Chinese remain familiar with the broad concepts of yin and yang, in fact, academic interest in it has since waned.

THE BIG IDEA IN ACTION: Yin-yang shows a great way to fly

YIN-YANG thinking is the key to Singapore Airlines' (SIA) resounding success, says National University of Singapore (NUS) marketing don Jochen Wirtz.

For nine years, Professor Wirtz and Warwick University's strategy don Loizos Heracleous studied the airline with the world's most awards, and were "stunned" to learn that SIA was up to 40 per cent cheaper to run than budget carriers.

How could that be, they wondered, when this airline pampers its passengers with designer seats on the latest-built aircraft - and even a chef of their choice to cook their in-flight meals?

Prof Wirtz, who is also academic director of the University of California, Los Angeles-NUS Executive MBA programme, says: "SIA oozes quality and yet is one of the stingiest companies around. But it is successful precisely because it embraces these paradoxes and knows when to, and not to, spend.

"You see this yin and yang, this doing two opposing things at the same time, showing service excellence externally while insisting on cost effectiveness internally."

So it is that SIA staff are split into two teams - one goes all out to meet customers' wants and whims, while another, working behind the scenes in the backroom, "looks to cut, squeeze and negotiate every cent".

Staff are also rotated regularly into different jobs, giving them incentives to prove themselves quickly. "How are you going to be a hero in your new job? By showing your boss' boss' boss dramatic improvements, which typically mean improved efficiency and cost reductions."

In February, Prof Wirtz and 40 of his students marvelled at another instance of yin-yang thinking when they visited the Narayana Hrudayalaya Hospital in Bangalore, India.

Its chairman and managing director, Dr Devi Shetty, 59, was once Mother Teresa's heart surgeon. She inspired him to heal the poor. Today, he and his team have performed more than 15,000 open-heart operations since he set up the hospital in 2001. They are more profitable than similar hospitals, despite charging only US$2,000 (S$2,470) an operation, compared with between US$20,000 and US$100,000 elsewhere.

Prof Wirtz says Dr Shetty makes it profitable by approaching the delicate surgery in assembly-line fashion; some of his surgeons focus only on slicing patients open, other surgeons sew them up and so on. He says Dr Shetty's yin-yang strategy includes devoting three nurses to each patient, giving them a 98.6 per cent survival rate.

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