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The Chinese Guide to Reading Human Beings.


Hi guys! Today I am going to write about the practical guide to reading and predicting human behavior, backed by the ancient  I-Ching (易經), or alternatively known as “The Book of Change”. Context: Last month I attended Singaporean business leader Raymond Ng’s course on Chinese Philosophy and Business, and found this part of the course really useful.

Who doesn’t want to be able to predict human behavior? I’d always been very curious about human behavior, to the point of being nose-y. For example, I’d not declare knowing certain languages sometimes, just to be able to eavesdrop on interesting conversations in that particular language. And I love going to smokers’ corners just to listen to gossips. Sometimes I’m also quite sneaky when I dig information, and that’s why I am quite a good social media manager–well, we research extensively online on personal profiles! So when Raymond told me that I-Ching can help me to read human beings better, I was sold.

And as expected, this knowledge did help me greatly, so I hope you enjoy this post!

There are three parts to this article: (A) A brief introduction to  I-Ching; (B) What are “Kun” (坤)and “Qian” (乾) ; (C) How the knowledge of “Kun” and “Qian” can be used to predict conflicts between individuals.

Let’s get started!

(A) A brief introduction to I-Ching

Before the course, I’d always felt that I-Ching is superstition. I am not sure where I got this impression from–but I do know that the Chinese art/science of Feng-shui (风水) is derived from I-Ching, and always thought that Feng-shui is superstition. Therefore, when Raymond told me about this course and offered me a scholarship, I was curious and went to research more about the book.

“How can a respected business leader use superstition to grow his business?” I initially wondered. But boy was I wrong. I-Ching is a truly wise book!

Here’s what Wikipedia says about I-Ching:

“The I Ching ([î tɕjə́ŋ]; Chinese: 易經; pinyin: Yìjīng), also known as the Classic of Changes or Book of Changes in English, is an ancient divination text and the oldest of the Chinese classics. Possessing a formidable history of more than two and a half millennia of commentary and interpretation, the I Ching is an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature, and art…After becoming part of the Five Classics in the 2nd century BC, the I Ching was the subject of scholarly commentary and the basis for divination practice for centuries across the Far East, and eventually took on an influential role in Western understanding of Eastern thought.”

I liked the way they referred to the I-Ching as “an influential text read throughout the world, providing inspiration to the worlds of religion, psychoanalysis, business, literature and art”. After the course, I could see why.

Also, do keep in mind that the I-Ching is written in the very rich Chinese language, which is usually context-dependent. For example, any single Chinese character can be interpreted in a myriad of ways depending on your context. This implies that the knowledge of I-Ching can be used to aid one in making various sorts of life-decisions.

(B) What are “Kun” and “Qian”?

The heart of I-Ching is balance.

Defined broadly, a “Kun” implies “Earth, the unchanging, something dependable, something heavy”, whereas a “Qian” implies “Heaven, the ever-changing, the creative, something light, something fleeting”. If you have read Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being; or Tanizaki Junichiro’s In Praise of Shadows, you’d get the “light/heavy” or “light/dark” concept quite fast.

In any business partnership context, a “Kun” must be led by a “Qian” to be productive for good. If a “Kun” were to ever try to stand side-by-side, or worse, surpass the “Qian”, then bad things will happen.  And “Kun” and “Qian” are always different in different partnerships. For example, at work a lady must be a “Qian”, but at home she might be a “Kun”. It’s all relative!

So let’s now look what a “Kun” is like when he progresses through life.

Kun is represented by the number 6, and is a symbol of “perseverance”. I-Ching says that a “Kun” person should never try to lead, but should instead follow a leader so that the combination would bring about good works. Refer here to the original Chinese text/ My Chinese Reference. Again, a caveat: there are probably 1001 ways to interpret this “Kun”, the following is merely my interpretation.

6-1: “When you step on frost, you should know that you’d be frozen soon”.

6-2: “There is no harm to go with the flow.”

6-3: “If you are in service of a king, seek not credit or vanity, but just complete your tasks”.

6-4: “A dangerous time: Tie yourself in a sack: No blame, no glory”.

6-5: “You’d earned the respect of your people. But be low-profile and subtle with your words.”

6-6: “You’d already reached the pinnacle of success, but take nothing for granted”.

Now look at what a “Qian” is like as he progresses through life. “Qian” is represented by the number “9”, and is the symbol of “Creativity”.  Here’s the original text in Chinese.

9-1: “A Great Man who is a nobody. Do not act but continue learning.”

9-2: “A Great Man who is a nobody, but appears in his chosen field. Although he has no commanding position in society, he has a seriousness of purpose and this distinguishes himself from his peers.”

9-3: “A Great Man who is starting to have some influence. Danger however lurks here because he might lose focus on his vision and sense of purpose, as he makes the transition from a “nobody” into a “somebody”. Inevitably, he attracts jealosty here too as he does his job well from 9-2.”

9-4: “The Great Man can make a choice here: To be of great value of the world, or to retreat into the wilderness to develop himself further. If the Great Man is true to his own vision, he will make a wise choice”.

9-5: “The Great Man has clear visible influence, and great value to the world. He attracts a lot of followers.”

9-6: “If the Great Man ever reaches this stage, he is considered arrogant and out of touch with the commoners. Do not reach this stage as it signals an impending fall.”

Haha, interesting philosophy, right?

(C) How the knowledge of “Qian” and “Kun” can be used to predict conflicts between individuals.

Okay so this is the interesting part: How to predict conflicts.

Assume that you have a guy at the stage of 9-5, and a guy at the stage of 9-1. This might happen at a mentor-student relationship. If the guy at the stage of 9-1 gets into a fight with a guy at the stage of 9-5, definitely he would lose. This is because a 9-1 has neither credibility nor social capital. Also, the 9-5 should also ideally not even entertain the 9-1, because he knows that the 9-1 only serves to make a fool of himself.

Assume that you have a guy 6-3 and a guy 9-5. This might happen when a visionary leader hires a hard-working person to execute parts of his vision. If this 6-3 were to start asking for credit, saying that “Oh what’s the big deal about 9-5, I did A, B, C, D”, then the 9-5 would stop using his service too. Why? Because the 6-3 has no influence or social capital, he is just employed to work. The 9-5 has a plethora of “Kun” to choose from, and he can simply place his trust in other “Kun”s who are more humble. So once a 6-3 asks for credit, the 9-5 would react by placing less trust on him, and giving him less important tasks for him to progress upwards.

Assume that you have a guy at 6-4 and a guy at 9-2. This might happen sometimes at organizations when you have very experienced senior workers, but a new, younger candidate is hired to helm a higher position. The guy at 6-4 might feel indignant about a younger, less experienced person being his boss. But once he tries to claim credit, chaos will ensue. What the 9-2 can then do would be to seek the backing of other higher ups and be humble, so as to secure his place.

Isn’t I-Ching an interesting philosophy for business? Just the “Kun” and the “Qian” alone help explain so many of the working relationships we face on a daily basis. There are in total 64 of these combinations!

Anyway, here are just some things for you to think about–Chinese philosophy is very interesting indeed. I learn something every time I revisit the original texts. Hope you’d enjoyed this post!

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