What can we learn from Chinese thought? - Intercultural Insights
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What can we learn from Chinese thought?
May 28, 2015


After L’Esprit des Religions, Hesna Cailliau has attracted attention once again with the publication of the book Le paradoxe du poisson rouge – Une voie chinoise pour réussir, by Éditions Saint-Simon in 2015.

With its 140 pages making it a perfectly manageable read, this subtle yet far reaching work immediately strikes us for its openness to the world, its talent for accurately yet modestly challenging our established certainties, its intimate knowledge of the very essence of the ‘other great civilisation’, that of China, and its conviction that seemingly opposing thought patterns can actually be complementary.

After having explored China and Asia in every direction over the last 40 years, carrying out more than 60 assignments in different countries and negotiating with Chinese, Taiwanese, Singaporean, Japanese and Korean managers, with Korea being a country for which I am an Honorary Ambassador, I believe this book helps us view these worlds with a fresh set of eyes, but that it also provides vital information which can be useful to us in our personal and professional lives, helping us see situations and partners differently, leading to solutions or improving our own personal development.

Awakening the Chinese in all of us

Based on two founding aspects, Judaeo-Christian and Greco-Latin, our Western civilisation is one of incomparable depth and richness, and those who, motivated by scorn or outright hatred of the West, suggest that we should “change civilisation” and abandon our values, freedoms or democracy are mistaken or have domination in mind.

This intelligent and subtle approach can bring us all so much. I’m not suggesting that we all become Chinese, but that we should “awaken the Chinese sleeping within us”, to give ourselves new ways of viewing life and new ways of thinking. This doesn’t mean abandoning or replacing our civilisation or submitting to an ideology, but to give thought to ourselves, to enrich ourselves both personally and collectively by focusing on what matters.

Keeping all possibilities open

“Those who don’t know, always see opposing and contrary forces. Those who know, see contradictory aspects as necessary complementarities”. Chinese thought challenges the rationalist or Marxist mindset of some Westerners: “Being free from ideas to remain open to all possibilities”

He who doesn’t speak, observes…

Displaying much humour, she draws extensively upon the Biblical prophecies, Greek rhetoric and the Roman orators, ” He who doesn’t speak, observes, he who speaks does not observe”, and “it takes two years to learn to talk and a whole lifetime to learn to shut up”. The culture shock can be brutal for those whose profession involves demonstrating, negotiating and speaking. But it’s something we can learn at any age!

There are no philosophers in China, just wise men: “It’s important to avoid getting captured in the net of words which imprison our thoughts”. Something to be kept in mind when we think of the place accorded to Sartre’s ramblings about communism, Maoism, existentialism, and humanism in France. Words, words and more words…

In China, “A dog is not esteemed highly because he barks well. And a man is not considered wise because he speaks eloquently”. A lesson we would all do well to learn.

The path is made by walking

Whereas, since Seneca, we have believed that “If one does not know to which port one is sailing no wind is favourable”, the Chinese tell us that “the road ahead emerges while walking” and “Don’t fix your mind on a single goal or you’ll be handicapped on your journey throughout life”.

Flexibility, adaptability, knowledge of life in the field and adaptation to life in the field are rules which are almost impossible to follow in our extremely regulated environment, an environment which we urgently need to free up. In public life, at a time when we are facing a legislative tsunami, a regulatory deluge and a fiscal avalanche, Confucius tells us “he who governs the least governs the best” and Lao-Tseu adds “the more laws and regulations you create, the more thieves and brigands you’ll get – A country is in decline when it starts increasing the number of laws”. These examples of Chinese thought should be taught in both Houses of Parliament and in the ministerial offices or at the French National School of Administration. There’s the old saying that “the fish rots from the head downwards”.

The seeds of the future are here in the present

I was always struck by the reaction of the Cambodians faced with the genocide inflicted upon them. Instead of judging those perpetrators still alive, building memorials or lamenting this genocide, they instead said: “We need to turn the page and find social harmony once again – The past is dead but the present is very much alive”. Endless agonising over the past prevents us from getting on with life again.

Far from the “bright days ahead” or the “shining futures” which have caused so much harm, in China as elsewhere the Chinese urge us to focus on the immediate future: “the seeds of the future are here in the present. He who is more attentive to the seed than the future surely cannot fail” and we should focus on the quiet signs of change.

Kodak’s managers could have really done with this advice. It is vital in both business and in public action: “you need to surf the wave” which means that you need to be able to spot it before it’s even visible. “You need to dissolve problems and not resolve them – Winning without going to war – Always leaving the door open to your adversary”. This is the strategy of the cat, which knows how to be patient and await the perfect moment.

Learning to move with ease in an uncertain environment

While I certainly don’t believe the Chinese are right about everything, we need to “learn to move with ease in an uncertain environment”. However, we live in an uncertain world, with considerable threats, with some people already predicting a Third World War. “The source of all our problems is that we attach absolute importance to what is relative”. “The man who knows what’s best for everyone else is a dangerous man indeed”. The paradox of the goldfish urgently needs to be translated into Arabic and Persian. Fortunately, Lao Tseu tells us:

  • “The moment you have certainties, you lose the war”
  • “For each laugh, we have a year less”
  • “I don’t have time for pessimism… You have to want to be happy”.
  • “If you’re relaxed, you can surf the wave. If you’re afraid, it’ll drown you”.

Wisdom and poetry

With these few selected thoughts and quotations, you can appreciate the immense richness of this work, which should be read in small doses, just as one sips a great wine to appreciate it.

The Chinese wise men were also skilled poets and as the cult of the ancestor is one of the fundamental aspects of their wisdom, to round off, I would like to include a poem from my father, Jules Tordjman:


“Il importe moins de cueillir l’orange que d’admirer l’arbre
Replie tes mains, contiens ta soif et regarde
Là où rit l’oranger se sont plantées les dents du soleil”

“It’s less important to pick the orange than to admire the tree
Put down your hands, contain your thirst and look
Where the orange tree grows is where the sun kissed the earth

Jean-Daniel TORDJMAN
President of the Club des Ambassadeurs, President of the Cercle des Nouveaux MondesHonorary Ambassador of the Republic of Korea for international investments



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About author

Jean-Daniel Tordjman

Jean-Daniel Tordjman

A former student of the ENA and of Harvard Business School, Jean Daniel TORDJMAN is an Inspector General of Finances. As an honorary Ambassador of the Republic of Korea for international investment, he chairs the Club les Ambassadeurs and the Cercle des Nouveaux Mondes. He has held various posts in the Department of External Economic Relations at the Ministry of the Economy before working as principal private secretary to André DELELIS then Michel CREPEAU. He has managed the French embassy’s economic expansion services in the United States and was subsequently appointed International Investments Ambassador. He has been involved in various international negotiations all around the world.

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