The Rise of China’s Good Old Ideas

We are about to discover China. When I say we I mean all non-Chinese plus those Chinese expats who might have forgotten some of their own finesse. When I say discover I don’t just mean the China displayed in Beijing Olympics 2008. That was just the beginning. Nor am I only thinking of China’s economic power. That is a given. No—the interesting part of China—the one it will take decades to discover and understand—is its cultural heritage. And with that comes culinary exploits, traditions, leadership theories—all of which will be mixed into the global reality that things need to be simple, trendy, and have mass appeal. Finally, when I say China, I actually mean the entire Chinese hemisphere—including Japan and Korea. Hence, in a few years, the Asian idea of Chi (sometimes spelled Qi or Ki in Japanese or Korean) will become commonplace. What will that mean?

The rise of Chi

Chi is Chinese for energy. Not the kind of thing we pay high Euro for in our houses to keep warm in winter, but the force that controls life itself. While it may sound strange to Westerners, even to diaspora Asians, the fact is that the Chinese have had a sophisticated civilization for several millennia, and that many of their ideas are timelessly important. Particularly that of Chi.  

Let us just enter into the logic of ki for a moment. The notion builds on the fact that you as a person constantly interact with others in a physical location. Furthermore, what we traditionally call social interaction consists of a mix of physical, social, and mental processes. These occur in and around your body, and comprise your presence. Becoming aware of ki, you can to some extent control or relay energy to where it is needed the most. However, there is no need to believe in the extreme variants of parapsychology in order to appreciate ki phenomena at their most basic levels. Gestalt psychology, a fairly established brain theory that emerged in the 1930s, holds that the whole is greater than its parts–directly in line with ki-sensitive thinking.

The rise of Chinese Medicine

One of the core ideas—one which is practiced in Chinese hospitals even today—is that healing your body has little to do with only medication. Painkillers in the traditional sense only numb the pain, they do not attack the root of the problem. The health of a person is governed by invisible energy flows inside the body, surrounding the body, and in a person’s surroundings. Hence, you treat the energy flows, not the person per se. Obviously, at a decent Chinese hospital they combine Western and Eastern healing—and many patients benefit from that.

The rise of Massage

Most people will have the sensation that foot massage affects other parts of the body. How is that possible? Well, even without accepting sophisticated and seemingly far-fetched theories like Yin and Yang and Meridians or Channels, we might have to concede there are things we yet do not understand. Many will already be familiar with some kind of Asian massage, whether it be Shiatsu, Acupressure, or any variant of Chinese massage. Asian massage is not the Swedish muscle-toned torture we know from Scandinavian massage, it is subtle pressure, often with far-reaching consequences way beyond the impacted body part. The Asian approach is to manipulate energy, although manipulate is a Western word. What actually happens is to release pressure, tension, and energy that is trapped—so the system restarts.

The rise of the Martial Arts

Chinese martial arts like Kung Fu as well as the Japanese Aikido all attempt to manipulate ki. The energy that flows inside you also likely is responsible for interpersonal dynamics – what we more commonly (in the West) call personal chemistry. In Aikido, all emphasis is on using the force of your opponent to your advantage, never adding your own negative force. Jiujitsu, another Japanese martial art, preaches the use of both positive and negative force. Martial Arts are part of global culture.

The rise of Chinese Leadership

The Chinese leadership model emphasizes connections, dignity, and trust, which are equally important for Western leaders. If you now assume I am thinking of Chinese Emperors, or even of the current head of the Communist party, Hu Jintao, or premier Wen Jiabao, you are partially right, but only partially. Chinese leadership is so much more. For one, it is in evidence every day the Chinese people make a consumer decision. Think of the consumer power of Chinese society. They will reshape post-credit crisis production and maybe transform the way we all business in the next decades. You might have guessed where this leads us: towards leadership from below.

Leadership from below, those of you who are following this blog will recall, is the view that leadership is more about attitude than position, more about peers than hierarchies. For more detail, consult my book, Leadership From Below (on Amazon.com). In any case, China is the perfect place to test the idea that leadership can indeed occur outside the establishment. If it can in China, among the most hierarchical, controlled countries on Earth, it can anywhere. Can we find examples of such things already happening in China? Sure.  Social entrepreneurs are slowly changing the makeup of Chinese society. Entrepreneurs are building companies with hybrid values—Chinese and global. But it will take time. 

Two quite interesting, and opposing forces are active in Chinese society—the force of Chi and the force of the Communist Party. The Rise of China’s Good Old Ideas will require one of them to cede. But whichever wins in China might not matter to the rest of the world (I said might). Clearly, the world has already chosen Chi—and that trend can be seen way beyond Chinatown in New York, London, or San Francisco. Just think of that when you buy your local potion of Ginseng, see your massage therapist, get acupuncture, eat your weekly ration of Asian food, or send your son to Martial Arts classes. We are all de facto believers in something so elusive that we prefer not to think about it too much. Chi—the word and the lifestyle will not go away. It signals a time where leaders must be in tune with their surroundings if they are going to lead at all. Not such a bad idea, one might say.

Leadership From Below: Lesson #9:

Successful leaders combine Eastern life principles and Western management principles. Charismatic leaders have a strong presence, are aware of how energy flows through human encounters. Energy (ki) is they key to health, intuition, as well as innovation. Discovering China’s good old ideas is worth it–regardless your ethic origin.

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About trondau
Trond A. Undheim, Ph.D, is a co-founder of Yegii, Inc. and Vidian Ventures. A former Director of MIT Startup Exchange & Sloan Senior Lecturer, WPP & Oracle exec., EU National Expert, and serial entrepreneur (VC, incubator, think tank, search engine), ), he is an active participant in the global venture ecosystem. His first book was Leadership From Below (2008). Trond holds a PhD on the future of work & AI/cognition.

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