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December 13, 2011

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Businessmen seek Confucian chic

CHINESE scholars have traditionally been held in high regard and today wealthy businessmen are trying to elevate their status, study the classics and brand themselves Confucian businessmen. Yao Minji reports on Confucian chic.

Like many Chinese entrepreneurs, 52-year-old Michael Chen puts many impressive titles on his engraved name card - founder, chairman, CEO, executive supervisor and advisory trustee.

But most interesting and unusual are the characters printed under his name, ru shang, literally meaning "Confucian entrepreneur," which sounds like a bit of a contradiction for a businessman dedicated to maximizing profits.

Inside the folded name card is a list of the companies and organizations that Chen is responsible for, including the Southern Confucian Entrepreneurs Association.

Chen is a privileged VIP member of the association, which means he may use the members' luxurious lounges in Hangzhou (Zhejiang Province), Beijing and Shenzhen (Guangdong Province). He receives invitations to small-group events such as tea and jade appreciation and invitations to small, informal get-togethers with famous scholars in various fields of Chinese culture. The association also holds special cross-company events such as receptions of high-level managers in different companies of the same industry.

Since he joined in early 2010, Chen has only attended two events, but he retains the association in third place on his name card, just under the names of two of the earliest companies that he founded.

"Using the term Confucian businessman is a trend and it's good for business," Chen tells Shanghai Daily. "It sets me apart from crass merchants who don't care about regulations or social responsibilities."

Chen asked that his full Chinese name not be published "because this group and associations I'm in are very exclusive and private with many important and famous people as members. And Confucius tells us to keep a low profile and not to care too much about attention in the newspapers or spotlight."

Chen is one of many Chinese businessmen who want to add some Confucian (meaning Chinese culture) cachet to their image and become known as a scholar-businessman.

One young businessman Yang Xianmiao, 28, drew considerable attention and admiration when he was named one of 28 honorees in the 10th National Exhibition of Calligraphy and Seal Carving, China's "Olympics" of calligraphy. He too has expressed wishes of growing into a more mature Confucian businessman.

'New rich'

Chen's story is representative. The native of Zhejiang Province holds a vocational school degree and earned an EMBA just three years ago. In the 1980s, Chen left the local hospital in a small town of Zhejiang, where he worked for five years and "jumped into the ocean" or xia hai, a Chinese expression describing the early entrepreneurs who gave up secure government-assigned jobs to enter the mysterious world of an emerging market and independent business.

Chen's path is typical among the first generation of private Chinese entrepreneurs, often referred to as the "new rich," meaning they haven't received much cultural education compared with businessmen today.

Chen started in pharmaceutical trading, a field he learned about while working in the hospital, and soon extended business into many areas, including food and beverage, exhibitions, consulting and real estate, among others. In the early years of his career, Chen went wherever the money was.

As the company grew larger, he felt the need for a company culture and for personal improvement - first Western management courses and soon popular "China studies," a term covering traditional Chinese philosophy and texts such as the "I Ching" ("Book of Changes"), "Tao Te Ching" ("Classics of the Way and Power/Virtue"), "The Art of War," and "Lun Yu" ("Analects of Confucius"), among many others.

"Rapid economic development has helped people recover self-reverence for traditional culture that has long been lost. Just yesterday, Chinese entrepreneurs and CEOs were still learning from Western management masters like Peter Drucker and John Kotter and suddenly, they have turned to traditional Chinese texts for answers that they couldn't find before," Tan Xiaofang, a professional China studies lecturer and trainer, tells Shanghai Daily.

"The whole idea of 'fly to take China studies classes' has become a trend and a status symbol for many Chinese entrepreneurs and CEOs," she says.

The debate between modern Western concepts and methods and traditional Chinese thoughts can be traced back to the May Fourth Movement, when Chinese students demonstrated in Beijing on May 4, 1919, to protest against the Treaty of Versailles (which transferred former German concessions in Shandong Province to Japan).

Many intellectuals, especially those who studied overseas, believed that only Western thinking and science, rather than traditional feudal and Confucian concepts of order and hierarchy, could rescue the weak nation. It was then that modern Western philosophy, educational methods and course subjects were introduced to China.

The debate went on during turbulent years and culminated after 1949, and especially during the "cultural revolution" (1966-1976), when old ideas were considered poisonous and corrupt. The opening-up and reform policy that began more than 30 years ago has encouraged millions of young Chinese to study English, Western philosophy, business, science and technology and a whole range of subjects.

Traditional Chinese culture and ideas, generally known as China studies, were mostly ignored during rocketing economic development - until three to five years ago. Suddenly courses in China studies and scholars of Chinese culture became very popular, especially among the affluent business community. Authorities supported emphasis on studies of traditional culture.

Many famous Chinese business tycoons like to be called and promote themselves as Confucian entrepreneur, such as Zhang Ruimin, CEO of Haier Group. He has said in many lectures that he has three teachers who taught him everything, including how to rescue the bankrupt refrigerator manufacturer and turned it into the world's fourth-largest home appliances company.

The three teachers are Confucius, Sun Tzu (author of "The Art of War") and Lao Tzu (author of "Tao Te Ching").

Huang Ming, chairman of Himin Solar, has opened three personal online blogs and two columns to promote the "Analects of Confucius." He endorses the Chinese saying "half of the 'Analects of Confucius' is enough to manage a country." Huang promotes the classical texts wherever he speaks.

Following in the footsteps of the tycoons, many Chinese businessmen have tried to acquaint themselves with and cloak themselves in traditional Chinese culture. Classes, activities, conferences and awards titled "Confucian entrepreneur" or "scholar entrepreneur" are everywhere.

Zhang Yafang, a 47-year-old Shanghai-based clothing manufacturer, just came back from a major Confucian entrepreneurs "summit" in Beijing when she accepted Shanghai Daily's interview. She squeezed two days out of her busy schedule and flew from Shanghai to Beijing for the summit, which she estimates to have had more than 300 participants.

The conference included seminars and discussion groups in various fields of China studies, such as traditional Chinese medicine class led by descendents of royal family doctors; discussion of Taoist ideas led by the headmaster of the famous Taoist school Qingcheng (the Qingcheng Mountain in Sichuan Province is said to be one of the originating places of Taoism); small group discussions about the "Analects of Confucius," among many other topics.

Zhang holds a bachelor's degree in marketing and was once a university lecturer, hence she considers herself "a real Confucian entrepreneur."

"It's a tradition for business people to buy their titles as intellectuals or scholars, but I'm different, I'm more like a scholar who has gone into business. After all, I didn't just follow the trend to do the China studies, I've practiced calligraphy for 20 years, and I can recite 'Analects of Confucius' and I'm still taking classes," she says.

Buying respectability

When talking about the tradition of buying scholars titles, Zhang refers to the ancient Chinese social hierarchy in the order of intellectuals, peasants, craftsman and tradesman.

Merchants have long been put at the bottom. However wealthy the businessmen were, they were not allowed to dress in expensive silk or to enter through certain gates reserved for nobility and scholars. To avoid discriminations, it was common in ancient times for merchants to pay for a title of a scholar. "It's like buying your honorary PhD today. Isn't that popular among Western businessmen?" Zhang adds.

Today, almost all prestigious Chinese universities offer paid courses for businessmen in Chinese culture, and certificates are usually awarded at the graduation. Since 2008, so-called "China studies CEO classes" have opened everywhere, including Tsinghua University, Peking University and Fudan University. Despite numerous requests for interviews, Fudan academics involved in the program were unreachable; an assistant and gate keeper did not facilitate contacts. Others were unreachable or did not respond to calls and e-mails.

These classes charge a lot, averaging from 30,000 yuan (US$4,719) to more than 100,000 yuan for around 30 lectures. Costs for field trips are separate. Many of these classes only accept CEOs and company executives, as stipulated in their application guidelines. It usually takes one and half year to two years to complete the course. Class members are asked to set aside two days a month for intensive study.

Lecturer Tan has lectured in many of such classes, mainly on "Xiao Jing," or the "Classic of Filial Piety." She extends the idea of respecting and loving parents to a company context and teaches employers how to establish employee loyalty. She recommends businessmen ask their employees to learn ancient texts.


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