Cheerful and charming, Chin-Ning Chu did
not look at all like a teacher of warfare. But as I walked into the back
of the crowded lecture hall at the Carnegie Council for Ethics and
International Affairs in New York, I saw fear as well as fascination on
the faces of the international deal makers who had gathered there to hear
her. Chin-Ning was telling bloodcurdling stories of power struggles in
ancient China. And completely enjoying herself.
These stories and the strategies they
illustrate are in the collective memory of most of the world's businessmen
-- that is to say, in the memory of businessmen in Asia. Chin-Ning is
teaching her mostly American audience the perils and rewards of doing
business in the Pacific Rim -- "a culture full of human beings who are
very busy thinking, strategizing," as she puts it. As a group of offspring
cultures of the bloody, 5,000-year history of China, Asia has inherited a
treasure house of tactics, wisdom, and insight into human psychology.
Through Chin-Ning, that insight becomes the birthright of entrepreneurs
throughout the world.
It's scary stuff. Chin-Ning describes a
technique called "Use Another's Hand to Kill" from the ancient Chinese
military classic The 36 Strategies: A king had his men draw up a list of
the enemy king's most able advisers. Then the first king publicly made a
solemn vow before Heaven to divide the opposing king's land among those
advisers, should he succeed in conquering it. The opposing king, sure that
they had betrayed him, had his advisers killed—and, of course, was
conquered easily in the ensuing battle. Chin-Ning concludes the ancient
tale with a shrug, as if to say, "That's business."
What has this got to do with business?
Isn't the study of war hopelessly in conflict with the "empowering,
sensitive, ethical, win-win environment" we should be creating?
No quarterback ever thought that
misdirecting his opposition was immoral. It's a matter of survival—just as
it is for a company introducing a new product. Chin-Ning's subject is the
art of keeping your opponents in the dark about your intentions so they
don't eat you for lunch. Chin-Ning's mission is to teach Western
businessmen how to apply classic ideas of Oriental strategy in Asia and in
the rest of the world. Of course, no one in legitimate business needs his
opposition eliminated—but through these ideas one learns the leverage
points of the human mind.
This is Chin-Ning's moment. Her book on
strategy, Thick Face, Black Heart, which was published first in America,
has now rocketed to the top of best-seller lists all over Asia. People pay
$1,000 a head to hear her speak, and her name is proclaimed in newspapers
and on television. She is the Toast of Taiwan, the Heroine of Hong Kong,
the Queen of Korea.
Chin-Ning escaped the Communist takeover of
China with her parents in 1949. At a book signing in her hometown,
Beijing, the crowds had to be turned away. The Communist government has
decreed that her book on free-enterprise success will be a
best-seller—though slightly altered to make it more politically correct.
Whereas to Americans, Chin-Ning bears the secret wisdom of the Orient, in
the East she is a successful consultant from the wealthy United States. In
mainland China, her book is entitled American Thick Black Theory.
In Hong Kong and Taiwan, she does radio,
newspaper, and magazine interviews and speaks for an American "great
books" documentary on The Art of War. Corporate honchos pay top dollar to
hear her -- the organizations represented include Kodak, Pan-Asia Systems,
Polaroid, the Canadian Embassy, the University of International Business
and Economics in Beijing, Mitsui, Exxon, Monsanto, Roche Pharmaceuticals,
Holiday Inn, and Coca-Cola.
In Taiwan, Thick Face, Black Heart has
displaced a tell-all biography of Deng Hsao-ping, by his daughter, on the
bestseller list. A Taiwan newspaper features a drawing of the Chinese god
of success reading Thick Face, Black Heart, scowling with concentration,
his long beard flowing.
"I talk about the positive aspect of the
Taoist philosophy that is the basis for books like The Art of War and
apply it to success," says Chin-Ning. "My book shows how winning is about
self-conquering instead of manipulating other people. You bring forth this
divinely ordained power within you. I combine this with mundane
Chin-Ning is hoping to open a huge market
for her ideas in mainland China, which has its own entrepreneurial class.
She describes a typical representative she met recently in Beijing: He
first sold Pierre Cardin suits in a little shop, then opened a Cardin sock
factory. He now exports all over the world and owns a Lexus complete with