Core Content

By Dr. Henry Wong Meng Yeong | Thursday, October 3, 2013

A student of Confucius asked him about government and Confucius replied that the requisites of government are that there should be adequate food, adequate equipment/supplies and confidence of the people in their ruler. His student then asked if one of the three had to be dispensed with, which he would choose. The master replied: equipment. His student persisted and asked if one of the remaining two had to be dispensed with, which he would choose. Confucius replied: Dispense with food as death has been with us since time immemorial. Without trust (faith) in their rulers, no state will stand.

This is the only recorded passage in the Analects in which Confucius is asked to prioritize. The allegorical reference to government is an extension of one’s family and of oneself, which forms the creed of 大学 (The Great Learning which is one of the Four books of Confucius).

Confucius’ careful choice of words is noteworthy. Moderation is the central in his teaching of Doctrine of the Means中庸. Adequacy in food supplies referred to here is euphemism for economy and not excess. An example of excess in government/organizations would be excessive pay much as indulgence is excess in one’s personal life. On a personal level, supplies and stores represent social needs, food represents basic physiological needs and trust represents core values which form one’s character. The order of dispensation of supplies before food is the reverse order of hierarchy as proposed by Maslow (discussed in earlier posts).

Confucius states that a completely virtuous man seeks not a fully belly or material comforts. Therefore dispossessing creature comforts and food is more important than losing one’s principles and values. He maintains that trust must not be lost.

On a macro level, a government/organization must not lose the trust of their people and the people must not lose their trust in their government/organization. In an era of technology, an inordinate amount of resources and time is spent on surveillance which is the result of lack of trust. Electronic products to monitor and cameras to track employees has become a norm. Instead, Confucius believes that nurturing a culture of trust is the more effective than electronic surveillance, best illustrated by the Chinese Idiom家贼难防 which means an insider who is a thief is hard to prevent.

On a micro level, Confucius maintains that one’s core content determined by one’s values is paramount. Likened to stripping an apple of its skin and pulp, the core is represents an individual’s principles and precepts. At an individual level, one must ensure that one is trustworthy. Hence the idiomatic expression rotten to the core is used to describe an unprincipled person or a corrupt organization.

The discussion continues….