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|China (re-)embraces Traditional Beliefs And Religion by AmunRaOlodumare: 4:19pm On Aug 31, 2015|
Traditional beliefs in China: Beyond the Bottom Line?
August 10, 2015 By Chris Russell (Additional reporting by Nancy Gong)
As China re-embraces traditional beliefs and religion, just how is this
affecting business in the country?
In downtown Shanghai, only a stone’s throw from a busy, traffic-clogged
road, sits the White Cloud Daoist temple. The air heavy with the scent
of incense, priests ring bells and bang drums, breaking the relative
peace inside the high temple walls as a man bows repeatedly before a shrine.
The setting might seem to contrast with Shanghai’s avowedly, and
proudly, commercial nature, but such places of worship have been making
a strong comeback, having previously fallen out of favor. That said,
they are perhaps the last places you would come to look for business
advice, yet here, as with so many things, China defies expectations.
“Quite a lot businessmen come to visit here,” says Song, a priest at the
temple. “They have different purposes for coming—some people pray for
more business and money and some people pray for having good health…
[but] many of them also come to learn.”
*State of the Nation*
As a country whose culture stretches back thousands of years, China has
naturally played host to all manner of religions and schools of thought
throughout its history, and many still have great relevance today. From
the country’s five officially recognized religions—Buddhism, Islam,
Protestantism, Catholicism and Daoism—to the country’s myriad folk
religions and traditional beliefs like feng shui, spirituality and
superstition inform much of the population, even if the country lacks
the overt religiosity found elsewhere. And in addition there are also
the philosophies bequeathed to China by the likes of Confucius
With China today, in the view of many people, suffering from a crisis of
trust and a vacuum of faith, Chinese people have begun to reacquaint
themselves with their traditional and spiritual heritage. Exact numbers
of the followers of some of these schools of thought are hard to
estimate, for a number of reasons—some, such as Confucianism and folk
religions, are poorly recorded, or not at all, and many individuals are
happy to combine beliefs from several different religions or philosophies.
Nonetheless, a 2012 Pew Research Center report
estimated China had 244 million Buddhists, 294 million followers of folk
religions, 68 million Christians and 9 million believers in “other
religions” (including Daoism). The number of religiously unaffiliated
people stood at 700 million. Within those figures for believers are
millions of business people, and their ideas and practices are now
manifesting themselves in the management of China’s companies.
*The Good Books*
“For quite some time businesspeople in China have employed feng shui,
geomancy, and other Daoist practices for warding off bad fortune and
ensuring success,” notes John Osburg, author of /Anxious Wealth: Money
and Morality Among China’s New Rich/ and Assistant Professor of
Anthropology at the University of Rochester.
But a key change has been the way that traditional religions and
philosophies, as well as ‘new’ belief systems such as Christianity, have
begun to have a tangible impact on business management and practice. A
number of the country’s leading business people have spoken of how such
beliefs in China have influenced their business thinking.
Alibaba’s Jack Ma, when asked about his management philosophy in a 2013
interview with Washington University professor Xiao-Ping Chen for
Chinese Management Insights, made frequent mention of the role
traditional Chinese beliefs in providing a basis for his management
ideas. “Through endless thinking, I have groomed, little by little, my
own management philosophy in the company, based on Tai Chi, Daoism and
Buddhism,” Ma said. “I never talked about this directly, but they are
the source and nutrition of our management philosophy.”
He’s far from the only one in looking to these beliefs for management
inspiration. Chen Feng, CEO of Hainan Airlines and a devout Buddhist,
has spoken of how Buddhism, Daoism and Confucianism play a role in the
company’s corporate culture and approach to social responsibility. All
employees are required to read up on traditional Chinese culture, points
of which they recite daily during their training, and senior executives
are given additional reading materials—staff are occasionally tested on
their knowledge of these points. Moreover, managers are encouraged to be
“a model of virtue”.
“I believe that if the Chinese do not learn and understand the core
values of the traditional culture, there will be no foundation for
future growth,” Chen said in an interview with The Boston Globe.
Moreover, Shalom Saada Saar, Professor of Managerial Practice at the
Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business, identifies Fosun, popular
hotpot chain Haidilao and energy firm Kaidi as just a few examples of
companies drawing upon Buddhism, Confucianism and Daoism in their
decisions about how to operate. “Now [there are] really a growing
number,” he says.
Such thinking has laid the foundations for a number of business
management books in recent years that have incorporated religion or
traditional beliefs—The Analects of Confucius: A Management Diary by
Shao Yu, Management Wisdom of the Book of Changes by Zeng Shiqiang and
the Chinese Management Diaries series, which looks for inspiration
from, amongst others, Chinese emperors and philosophers, have all been
successful entries in the genre.
Confucius looms large over Chinese society, and his influence is felt in
“The books are selling quite well and company managers want to read
these kinds of books,” says one editor, who declined to be named, at
Times Bright China, a company involved in the publishing of /Management
Wisdom of the Book of Changes/ and similar volumes. “Regarding our
future publishing plans, we definitely will publish similar books that
combine company management and traditional Chinese culture.”
These ideas flow into the classroom too. “We collaborate with
universities such as Fudan, who have classes for tutoring CEOs, and give
a one or two-day class teaching something like management concepts
mentioned in the Tao Te Ching,” says Song at White Cloud Temple.
*Practice Makes Perfect*
Given the diversity of beliefs and the range of industries they are
applied to, their actual manifestation in business practice is equally
varied. Still, Saar identifies tenets from three of the major belief
systems that businesses can learn from, all centered on the concept of
From Confucianism, a crucial idea is harmony among people. “What does it
mean if you don’t create harmony with people around you, if you don’t
create the culture that cares about people? Then you cannot grow the
organization—people will escape, either physically, or [in] their mind,”
says Saar. “You must create harmony among people if you want to succeed.”
Meanwhile, Daoism promotes harmony between people and the environment.
“Daoism in one sentence is: ‘harmony with the environment’,” he says.
That has implications for business in terms of energy, recycling,
pollution and so on, as well for creating a company culture in which
people can grow and develop.
Finally, from Buddhism, Saar identifies the idea of being at peace with
oneself as important to business. If you don’t have that, he says, then
it is very hard to influence others.
According to John Osburg, the main influence that these beliefs have on
some business people is in terms of their own personal conduct, with
them foregoing hedonistic or shady business practices as a result. In
many cases, that has a negative impact, straining professional
relationships, but not always.
“Some of the Buddhist businessmen I interviewed also spoke of positive
effects of their beliefs,” says Osburg. “They explained that now many
view them as more trustworthy as a result of their faith, and this has
helped them win clients and investors. Furthermore, in both Christian
and Buddhist circles you find business networks forming around those
with shared religious beliefs.”
But the engagement of Chinese businesspeople with religions and
traditional beliefs isn’t without complications, and not everyone uses
them as a route to an enlightened business philosophy. “For the
majority, their engagement with religion is really just a means of
ensuring good fortune and warding off bad luck,” says Osburg. “In other
words, it’s just another means of enhancing their business success.”
While the White Cloud temple might play an unexpected role in the
grooming of China’s executives, it still only plays a small part in the
hectic, commercial city. Similarly, traditional beliefs overall have
only a modest influence on the thinking of Chinese businesspeople for
the majority of whom the bottom line will remain the bottom line.
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