Chris Russell (Additional reporting by Nancy Gong) Authors

Traditional beliefs in China: Beyond the Bottom Line?

August 10, 2015


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, [D]aoism 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 business too

“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 harmony.

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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