For starters flying is no more the simple thing it once was. Not so long back you bought a ticket, showed up at the airport about 30 minutes before the flight and so long as you had a valid identity, weather permitting you were reasonably sure to find yourself on the flight. Not any more!
It is safe to say that the hours we spent at various airports standing in frustrated check in lines were easily the longest in our years of flying anywhere around the world. The airlines seemed to be piqued at passengers carrying paper tickets. In doing so they were less motivated at saving the world’s trees as conserving their own effort. Why must customer experience be the first victim of an Organization in financial crisis? Tomes have been written about the importance of satisfying customers to grow profit. However even in the motherland of capitalism airlines don’t seem to get the message. Likewise is the concept of benchmarking. Walk across to the Southwest Airlines counter and you are in a different world. I had never imagined copying could be such a difficult skill. But then again that may be because we live in China! One country prominently missing from recent rankings of the world’s top airports and airlines is the US. Clearly the Twenty First Century has been brutal for the land that pioneered mass air travel. The apathy of the front end airline staff is visible. As we traveled I could not help wonder what would happen if the pilots and the maintenance crew too adopted the same lackadaisical approach to their work. Fortunately my reverie was broken with an announcement on the flight address system asking if anyone could change $20. When something like that happens you know you are flying Southwest! I could resume my musing undisturbed.
Fact remains however that hotels, airlines, stores, rental car companies, Amtrak (service companies all of them) could do with a solid dose of customer orientation. Nearly twenty years back Time devoted an entire issue lamenting the abysmal state of service in American society. The title - ‘Pul-eeze! Will Somebody Help Me?’ says it all. Clearly that seems to have been a cry in vain! I would eschew the facetious explanation that absence of a service orientation is a cultural issue. Among Airlines we have Southwest as a conspicuous exception. I also had to call All Nippon Airlines to confirm my return travel. The voice at the other end was distinctly American and was as helpful as you could find anywhere in Japan. At the hotels we stayed, the best service seemed to be at ‘owner’ operated hotels - a fact the staff took pains to remind me when I complimented them. So is this a conundrum about managing large organizations? If so I wonder who reads the scores of books published each year on leadership!
America is beginning to age! The Baby Boomers - the engine of conspicuous consumption that drove the US post war economy is shifting gears. They are retiring from jobs and traveling in droves. At every tourist destination we saw hordes of tourist buses ferrying those too old to drive. Reminded me of Japan! Now that’s interesting. As the economy boomed for an extended period post World War II, the US became an ‘automobile centric’ society including the trend towards suburbanization. Mass transport was anathema both to the freedom seeking populace and the car companies. As such most US cities have no mass transit systems for those who prefer not to drive. I recently read an account of how the New York State and City Parkways were designed to prevent access by buses as well as to avoid future construction of a railway system alongside the parkways. This in turn became the model for public transportation around the US. In the coming years it will be interesting to see which way the mood of public infrastructure spending will swing as the share of population that cannot drive grows and gas prices edge skyward.
The US has always prided itself on being a ‘melting pot’. While regional and cultural differences will remain, it is about as close a modern society has got to forging a common orientation in its citizens. This notion is about to be challenged with growing Latinization. Traveling across California, there were times when we were unsure which side of the border we were on! From all indications the influx from south of the border is unlikely to slow much less stop- not to mention reversing itself. The one notable difference in this wave of immigration, it appears is that the arriving population is not keen to drop its identity and merge. Clearly the days of dual language announcements and Spanish lessons are here to stay. Immigration at much lower levels is causing palpable unease in Europe. It will be interesting to see what direction the US takes over the next few years.
The Japanese started the trend that has spread across Asia like wildfire. I am referring of course to cell phone addiction. Almost every self respecting Asian adult and teenager seems to have a cell phone these days. And not just own one but use it all the time to ‘stay connected’. In Japan they call it the ‘Thumb Generation’. Never before in human history has that appendage proved the full worth of its existence than at sending messages to friends! Cross the Pacific and the only folks I seem to recall using their mobile phones were the Corporate ‘Blackberry’ types. Several times I called friends to find phones switched off. Switch off a cell phone? That is akin to blasphemy in Asia. Airlines are waging an ever losing battle to get folks to do so. Why has mobile telephony not made as big a splash in the US as in Asia? My guess is it has more to do with the business circumstances than any significant cultural preferences. Across Asia upstart entrepreneurial operators seized mobile telephony as their opportunity to take on stodgy state owned fixed line companies. Aggressive marketing by mobile operators and handset manufacturers seems to have won out. In contrast complex regulatory environment in the US seems to have protected the turf of the Baby Bells. But then again I could be mistaken. What consequences will this have on the future of technology use in the US is hard to tell. Will it lead to a technology boat missed by US consumers?
Whole sectors like mobile telephony, portable music, video and game consoles, digital cameras and handheld computing continue to morph at an accelerating pace.
In a sense however I see this as another area where the US has ceased to be seen as the trend setter for youth worldwide. Trends in teenage fashions and music are already divergent and today it is Japanese, Korean and Taiwanese teens who set the pace for Asia. A generation back this was beyond imagination. Is this an aberration that will shortly correct itself or the harbinger of an imminent seismic shift to come? Who are we to predict the future? We just need to let time take its indubitable course!
It did not take me long to realize that I was on a different planet. Having lived there for five years, I am convinced that India and Japan are at the two extremes of Asia and are about as different as two human cultures can get. The Indian mind accepts the uncertainty in life and Indian managers take great pride in our ability to plan for any eventuality. In fact when I reflect on my own experience as a manager in India, I believe the greatest capability we learn and the most effort we put into is in dealing with the variance in every event every day. People, Flights, Trains, Trucks do not show up when they should; Laws are interpreted at the whim of the interpreting official; the most outstanding acts are replaced in minutes by the most pathetic- the list is endless. In contrast the Japanese mind abhors uncertainty in daily matters and as a culture they make every effort to eliminate the uncertainty. Nothing illustrates this better than the Bullet Train system.
The first bullet train ran between Tokyo and Osaka on November 1, 1964 . Today they operate with a frequency of about 6 minutes at peak hours between Osaka and Tokyo. Just imagine trains hurtling at speeds of 250 - 300 Kms each hour with an interval of 6 minutes. The schedule operates like clockwork. Fast trains overtake slower ones stopped momentarily at stations. It takes a lot more than minor earthquakes, typhoons and snowfall to throw the system off schedule. In the last 38 years that this system has been working, how many accidents do you think have occurred? How many lives lost? The simple answer is NONE. If this is not a miracle of management, then what is? Was it a miracle or did people work to make it happen? There are several factors underlying this achievement. I want to highlight just three.
One is the extraordinary pride that the people working in the Shinkansen system feel at their achievement. A few minor incidents recently elicited a spate of articles in newspapers from the pioneers (now retired) who complained how the younger generation had lost the will to sustain the world class creation. You can see the pride in the eyes of every employee each time you travel in the bullet train – from the station staff to those driving the train to those serving the passengers. What leadership does it take to create and sustain this pride for so long a period of nearly 40 years? How can we do likewise in our organizations in India? What will be the impact on the economy if we make such islands of excellence commonplace?
The second factor is the famous Japanese management technique of never accepting a failure or a quick fix. They take great pains to document data on each failure – minor or major. This data together with solid teamwork and a spirit of asking ‘why’ till the root cause is discovered has enabled them to build reliability into the design and operation of everything from trains to routine events in every workplace. This is another area where we need to build the skills and the commitment at the grassroots. That to my mind is what leadership is all about.
The Japanese are strong believers in the system of continuous improvement. The earliest bullet trains, for example covered the Tokyo – Osaka distance in about 6 hours. They were replaced by the next generation ‘Hikari’s’ that do it in three and in 2001 they brought in the ‘Nozomi’s’ that make the journey comfortably in two and a half hours. A new generation is being readied for launch that will make it in two hours.
There is another remarkable feature associated with the Bullet train system that not too many people are aware. Constructing the Bullet Train System was the last time that Japan as an impoverished post war country went to the World Bank for a loan. Thereafter their economy boomed and they became net lenders to the World Bank. I do hope we set a similar vision of cutting our dependence on foreign lending? Can we say we will stop borrowing in the next 15 years?
What has enabled Japanese economy to grow has been the network of Bullet Train Tracks, Expressways, airports and ports. This is the classical supply side model and has worked in the case of the US economy too. It is good to see that we are taking steps to invest in a road network. But what about the railways and the airports? Japan as a country is a lot more crowded than India is. In this congestion, they had to rapidly lay a totally new track system to carry these high speed trains at such high frequencies. At what point in our economic growth will we outgrow the current British-inherited rail infrastructure? Today Japan’s economy requires trains at 6minute frequency and nearly a hundred daily flights between their two principal cities – Tokyo and Osaka. Can we sustain a doubling or tripling of traffic between Bombay and Delhi with the current network? Remember, infrastructure does not get created overnight. I do hope some serious thinking is taking place in Government of India.
India imposes itself on the consciousness, like no other place. On the flight home after every visit, I am left reflecting on things I saw, people I met, what I heard or read about and how much or how little things have changed since my last visit. My most recent trip was easily the most disturbing and depressing by a long margin. It is good to see the economy boom and prosperity flow to the people, I am however getting concerned at the rapid slide towards India becoming a Ten Percent Nation.
I do not mean Ten Percent in the sense of the growth rate India aspires to. Neither to the bribes that increasingly need to be paid to get anything done nor to the incessant clamor to reserve everything for every community and thereby elude the merit trap. Rather a peculiar phenomenon you witness everywhere you look is that of a small minority of people, organizations or systems that are world class amidst a vast ocean mired in abject mediocrity.
Why the contentment with mediocrity? I can think of three drivers: Lack of opportunities starting from education or infrastructure for a significant chunk of the population. Second is force of habit. It is easy to live in India and drop your aspirations for rewards and settle into a cocooned existence of your family’s heritage. Last and increasingly significant is the opportunity to latch on to someone in power, leech like and live off ill-gotten gains. One consequence of this situation is that for every statement about India, the converse point of view can be argued with equal passion.
Take politics. It is progressively becoming a family enterprise and the arguments that got rid of the aristocracy & feudalism have long since been jettisoned. A recent study showed that as many as two thirds of elected representatives under forty and an astonishing 100% of those under thirty owed their success to their family’s political presence. Every politician sees his/her role as holding fort and accumulating wealth for the succeeding generation, almost to a rule. No place for upstarts here. The successors in turn are brought up in an entitlement culture. Not being offered their parent’s seat or ministership is a personal affront that gets them terribly riled. They split parties, organize street protests, and make their disgruntlement known by burning down buses and shutting down whole towns. There is no ideology here except self-perpetuation. Another interesting phenomenon is that Indian politicians defy Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. At no point do they seem to migrate from making money to thinking about their legacy. The expectations are pretty inconsequential. Having a street here or an unexceptional educational institution there named after them and of course a profusion of statues is all they aspire for. Shelley’s admonition is sadly forgotten:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away”
A few well-meaning politicos plow a lonely furrow in this morass.
Turn your attention towards business. The Economist recently published an analysis that in the past decade a growing share of business growth has been captured by existing business houses or by entrepreneurs connected to those with political power. Infosys was seen as the last start up with global aspirations that was purely entrepreneurial and was being run as a professional and ethical entity. And when did Infosys get started? That was thirty years ago. So Big Business and crony capitalism are crowding out entrepreneurs. As the economy opens up and new opportunities become available, why are entrepreneurs unable to jump in? Why are they unable to scale? Why do they not have aspirations to global excellence? Here is a typical example. I have arrived at the Mumbai International Airport. After a tiring flight, I and several others like me are not looking forward to the four hour drive to the nearby town of Pune. We have lined up to take a taxi. Over the years I have watched this taxi company’s business prosper from the booming traffic. There have now nearly a hundred taxis plying this route. A nice story of an entrepreneurial venture prospering, you might say. From the team doing the job day in and day out, you would expect the performance of a well-oiled machine. And you would be wrong – by a wide margin. The chaos as drivers and the folks managing the station try to figure out the optimal way to seat the incoming passengers would be appalling if seen in a bunch of newbies. Baggage is loaded and promptly unloaded. Passengers seated and asked to disembark in a comic charade. If there is any system or process that is being followed, I would have great difficulty telling what it is. On the way the driver mentions business is booming. On some days he does two trips to cope with the demand. His boss has just bought a swank German automobile with all the money sloshing around. So what is he planning to do next, I ask. Invest in Real Estate, is the instant response. Real Estate? So no aspirations to growing one’s business into world class operations. I have often been puzzled at the keenness of businessmen to dabble in several sectors. Reality is at heart few are in any business for the passion. Rather they see it as an opportunity to make money. That is as it should be. But making money as the end and not a byproduct of the act of creation means the focus is never on striving to excel in the field you are in.
Education is in a similar state of decay. For all the talk about the excellence of the IIT’s and the IIM’s, fifty years on, there is scarcely an institution that aspires to out IIT the IIT’s or the IIM’s. Hundreds, maybe thousands of Engineering and Management institutions have been started during these years. Is it not an astonishing spectacle that these are mostly run as printing presses giving their students little more than a piece of paper the receiver hopes will be their passport to the good life? And of course as ATM’s throwing out cash for the founders!
I have always wondered why it is so difficult for Indians to aspire for excellence in their fields. Why don’t the performances of the 10% motivate the rest? Why must mediocrity be the norm? In the closed economy of the past, one could argue that awareness or funding was a barrier. But these days every field is global and access to funds is not an issue anymore. If anything there is way more money chasing top talent. Financial rewards in India are disproportionately skewed towards the high performers in every field. For example, a study at Wharton analyzed Indian Cricket and concluded that the top players corner way higher share of the total pool in Cricket than in the NBA or NFL. So the financial incentives are in place. If so, is it the hard work that is required to raise and sustain one’s game the barrier - especially when short cuts are available? Exhortation by poets like Tagore for a land where ‘tireless striving stretches its arms towards perfection’ have fallen on conveniently deaf ears.
Actually it does not take a vast majority to lift a nation to greatness. What is needed is that the actions of a few inspire emulation from only a few more. In the answer to this conundrum lies the path for the country to achieve a modicum of its boundless potential.
Alaska was purchased by the US from Czarist Russia in 1867 for the then princely amount of $7M. The rate of 2 cents an acre for unusable brush land led the state to be tagged ‘Seward’s icebox’ (after William H. Seward, Andrew Johnson’s Secretary of State who negotiated the deal). At the time of the purchase the state hosted little economic activity beyond the fur trade. Later discovery of Copper and Gold deposits were followed by the inevitable, albeit short lived Gold Rush. Agriculture however proved to be a singular failure. Land lots were parceled out to immigrant farmers from the ‘lower 48 states’, but all efforts to coax bountiful harvests out of the barren soil in the short daytime hours were so unsuccessful that they had to be quickly abandoned. To this day most food is hauled from the mainland US and neighboring Canada.
Oil was struck in the Arctic in post war years. Much wringing of hands about the ecological impact ensured the oil remained underground until the stalemate was broken by the Arab oil embargo. The oil pipeline from the Arctic coastline to the all-weather port of Valdez is an 800 mile marvel of engineering and a reflection of man’s ingenuity and commitment to overcome natural odds. Constructing a line carrying hot oil while preventing the permafrost from melting was a challenge. The line also crosses three major earthquake faults; traverses steep gradients and needs to withstand air temperature swings of 180 degrees Fahrenheit through the year (Alaska has one of the highest annual differences between minimum and maximum temperatures). It must rate as the last major engineering construction project in the US before the field of engineering lost its grip on the imagination of young Americans. The sweat and grime of the physical world is no match to the joy of financial engineering executed in air-conditioned comfort!
Alaska is hunting territory with most animal species open for being hunted by residents and to some extent by non-residents. Despite this, we were happy to see the widespread presence of wildlife. The Denali National Park was a veritable feast for the eyes of bears, moose and caribou. One evening glancing outside our remote cottage in the woods as we were having dinner, we saw a black bear parked right outside our front door. That was about as close I have ever got from having dinner to becoming one!
Alaska experiences extreme swings in daylight hours across the year owing to its proximity to the North Pole. Much of the northern part of Alaska is plunged into a period of continuous darkness when the sun does a no show for 54 days from Nov 24th to Jan 18th. And then in summer you have more or less uninterrupted daylight. In August when we visited, it would be 11 pm before it got dark only to have the Sun show up around 4 am. The Alaskans we spoke to said they stop linking their lives to the fate of the Sun. People eat and sleep driven purely by their biological cycle.
Human presence in Alaska traces its roots back to the migration across the Bering Strait during the last Ice Age nearly 10,000 years back. Their choosing to stay and brave such harsh environment is remarkable and is one more example of man’s phenomenal capacity to adapt. To protect themselves from the chilling winds and snow as well as the numerous bears, they built their communal homes underground with a very narrow entrance. Fishing was the main source of food as there is not much by way of nutrition from plants they could access. Not surprisingly, legends and myths about bears and fish replace the agrarian tales of the tropics. Today only a few tribes of native Inuit’s, descendants of these migratory tribes remain scattered around the state and are working hard to preserve their fast disappearing lifestyle and culture.
I asked the owner of our lodging how he found himself in Alaska. He narrated an interesting tale. He and his wife had for several years in the seventies spent the winter months roughing it out in the remote wilderness. His home proudly displayed the stuffed trophies of the wild animals he had shot over the years. Prominent too was the large safe that housed the numerous rifles he possessed. A relapse to the hunter gatherer mode of existence? - I wondered. The economic boom of the Oil pipeline had convinced him to drop anchor and settle down in a remote part of the state. On proud display were pictures of him logging the forest and building his home and the lodge single handed. A number of Alaskans we spoke to narrated a similar tale. The draw of a wild untamed frontier land had proved irresistible.
Alaska is glacier country. One sees melting glaciers transporting ice and moraine from mountaintops at every turn. Evidence of global warming is everywhere. Well documented photographs show the rapidly accelerating shrinkage of the glaciers. I sometimes wonder if future generations will get to see only photographic evidence of the existence of glaciers. Man is a strange animal. During my conversations with Alaskans, stark evidence of the disappearing glaciers was dismissed with a cold shrug. To think that these are people whose lifestyles would be the most impacted! The thaw was attributed to a natural climate cycle that has been going on over the ages and hence of little concern. In contrast Pacific Islanders are the most vocal in pushing for a cut in emissions to stop the rising ocean levels consigning their homes to a watery grave.
As our flight departed I was left bidding farewell to what surely is one of mankind’s fast disappearing frontier terrain. Only time will tell whether it retains its immense beauty or falls a victim to man’s pursuit of technological progress.
© Milind Yedkar
Picture this: An upcoming business leader in a respected corporate environment; a rising star in the firmament suddenly chooses to abandon his corporate lifestyle midstream and starts up a Non Profit (aka NGO) to set up libraries in remote schools in Asia & Africa. Along the way he breaks up with his partner who does not wish to trade in the certain luxuries of a corporate lifestyle for the uncertain hardships of an entrepreneurial life and incessant travel through remote terrain. This is the story of John Wood who left Microsoft in 1999 to establish his NGO ‘Room to Read’. Today they have set up over 1000 schools and distributed over 9 Million books to over 10,000 schools. Truly impressive statistics by any yardstick, the impact these have had on the lives of children have been beyond measure. It all began with a trekking holiday John took in Nepal, where in a remote school he witnessed a library having only an abandoned copy of ‘Lonely Planet’ that was kept under lock and key as the only English book the school possessed. Dashing off an email to friends to donate books they did not need, he was pleasantly surprised by the response in the form of a garage overflowing with books in his parent’s home. The joy he saw in the children’s eyes when the books were delivered contrasted with the ennui he experienced in life at Microsoft where he rehearsed Bill Gates travel through China down to the last minute only to watch Bill blow up all the preparations in a disinterested interview to the media. Seeing an opportunity to give meaning to his life, he jumped ship and ‘Room to Read’ was born casting John in the role of a Twenty First century Andrew Carnegie – except in this case he was passing the hat around for funding rather than writing cheques to his account.
The year is 1993 and an amateur mountaineer is making his way down after an unsuccessful attempt to scale the world’s second highest peak K2. Losing his way, he stumbles into a remote village of Korphe in the Balti region of Pakistan severely ill and nearly dead of exhaustion. Greg Mortenson, an American from California was cared for by the villagers. In gratitude for their kindness, Greg made a promise to return and help build a school for the village children - especially the girls. Raising funds proved way more difficult than he had imagined however, with several lecture presentations ending with no collection at all. Moving out of his rented apartment to save every dime, he slept for weeks in his old car in a public parking lot. Eventually finding his savior in a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, Greg encounters the challenge of executing his best laid plans in the cultural tangle of tribal Pakistan. His commitment to building schools to educate children and especially girls in remote Pakistan and Afghanistan sees Greg undertake several life threatening journeys including the time when he traveled the night at the back a truck hidden under putrefying carcasses barely escaping being shot in order to reach a remote Afghan warlord and get his support to building schools in his area. At another time Greg was kidnapped and kept under confinement in the Waziristan area of Pakistan while his captors tried to figure out who this American eccentric was who wanted to build schools for girls in their tribal area. Importantly Greg was able to convince an equally committed bunch of mavericks to join his NGO ‘Central Asia Institute’ and inspire them to carry on his task. What do you say when your hire works days and nights even risking a burst appendix in remote Afghanistan to keep his projects on track – with no financial incentives at play.
“Choose a job you love, and you will never have to work a day in your life!” Thus spake Confucius. Easier said than done - as most of us working the corporate world discover pretty soon! Here are two individuals who seem to have done just that – and lived to tell their tale. More importantly the people they inspired were like the proverbial brick layers who kept the vision of the cathedral they were creating alive as they laid the bricks. Now, if more of us manage to do just that, is there any doubt about the transformation that that would unleash in the world? Do take the time to read John Wood’s: “Leaving Microsoft to change the world” and Greg Mortensen’s: “Three cups of Tea” and ‘Stones into Schools” and be inspired. These are the real leaders the world of the twenty first century needs.
© Milind Yedkar
Which period in our history has had the greatest impact on human thought? This is debatable with several claimants including the just concluded twentieth century. For me it is the sixth century BCE that will always rank as the period when human thought took the greatest leap forward. In India, Titans in the form of the Buddha and Mahavir (founder of Jainism) reinterpreted ancient Hindu philosophy. Across the Himalayas, Confucius and Lao Tzu laid the foundations of religion and culture that continues to this day across most of East Asia. The West was to see the earliest stirring of thought in the form of Pythagoras and several Pre-Socratic philosophers. Although there is some debate, several historians believe the Second prophet Isaiah and Zarathustra led philosophic thinking in the Middle East.
Little is known about the life of Lao Tzu. The home and grave of Confucius are however well preserved. Confucius is one of those rare teachers whose wisdom was ‘discovered’ in his native land nearly three centuries after his passing away. During his long lifetime Confucius could not even secure an appointment to see a minor Duke let alone an Emperor. He lived in relative obscurity, revered only by a band of close followers who documented his sayings and the incidents from his life. It was not until the reign of Emperor Wu of the Han Dynasty, over three centuries later that Confucianism was installed as the state philosophy. Makes me wonder how many such jewels lie buried in the sands of human history waiting to be discovered. A man, whom people were not keen to associate with in his lifetime, today has over two million individuals claiming direct descent. Today a steady stream of tourists makes a beeline to his home and grave. We were happy to join this crowd on one day.
His hometown of Qufu (pronounced ‘ChooFoo’) is an obscure village in Shandong province that lives off the tourism its worthy son generates. Several ancient temples dedicated to Confucius in Qufu were destroyed during the Cultural Revolution. These have been quickly rebuilt when their tourist potential trumped the distaste the communist party had of a ‘reactionary’ thinker. Confucianism today is once again experiencing a revival among the Chinese rulers and the literati as they grapple with the current singular focus on economic success. Ever since Confucius was deified in China, his descendants experienced an unanticipated windfall. Successive generations of sons have been appointed Dukes of the province and today 80 odd generations are buried in a private cemetery. Must take a lot of good karma to be born a descendant!
One can trace the pragmatism in Chinese thinking to Confucius. When asked by a follower what happened after death, Confucius is reported to have retorted,”When one does not understand life, how can one understand death”. In stark contrast, Indian sages composing the Upanishads in roughly the same time period found the challenges of an evanescent life too uninteresting and prayed to be led “from that which is ephemeral to the eternal”. The Buddha too was more concerned with helping people find a path to end the unavoidable suffering in this evanescent life. Confucius, in contrast exhorts us to teach people how to catch fish rather than gifting them a fish.
Confucius was deeply concerned about filial piety and making sure people paid their respects to their ancestors. This finds its way into the Chinese naming system. The middle name is typically that of the generation. So it became possible for distant cousins to know who should kowtow to whom. The ‘Ze’ in Mao Ze Dong, for example is the name chosen by the previous generation for all children born in the extended family (Mao being the family name and Dong the first name). In Confucianism belonging to a generation is more respectable than one’s physical age.
Confucianism led to the stratification of society into four classes - the scholars, farmers, artisans and merchants, much like the Indian Varna or caste system. Unlike the Indian caste system however, the merchants were the lowest and most despised strata of society. The Chinese businessman of today is one who has successfully shaken off the yoke of Confucianism! Veneration of scholarship led to the creation of the annual examination system to select the mandarins. (Interestingly the word ‘Mandarin’ owes its origins to the Sanskrit word ‘Mantri’ (Minister) and was used by Europeans to describe officials in China but the word itself does not exist in the Chinese language!).
Through its long history Confucianism has vied with Buddhism, its contemporaneous philosophy for dominance as the state religion. Confucianism emphasized learning and drove power into the hands of the Mandarins. Under its influence China went through long periods of economic isolation. Experimentation wilted under the stern revulsion for physical labor and leapfrogging inventions such as paper, printing and gunpowder were allowed to languish and Chinese society went from being an economic powerhouse to a recluse. On a positive, the emphasis on filial piety, relationships and loyalty brought much needed stability to Chinese society after the chaos of the ‘Warring States’ period ( 475 – 221 BCE). Confucianism’s essential belief in the goodness of every being and in the possibility of self improvement via learning has contributed to the drive for education seen in Eastern Asian societies to this day.
As I bowed in front of the great man’s grave, I could not help reflecting on the genius of an unknown man who left an enduring stamp on a wide swath of human society and its actions - as well as the human frailty in its inability to recognize genius in its midst. I wonder how many unpolished diamonds surround us today that we are unable to discern!
© Milind Yedkar