The Thick, Black Theory

My first introduction to the thick, black theory was through the book Thick Face, Black Heart by Chin-Ning Chu, which I read many, many years ago. The book promised to provide ancient Asian secrets to success, and had recommendations from minor western celebrities, such as former Cincinnati Reds coach Sparky Anderson. Depending upon the edition, the book’s title blurb variously promotes it as a book about “Thriving, Winning and Succeeding in Life’s Every Endeavor”, “The Warrior Philosophy for Conquering the Challenges of Business and Life”, and “The Asian Path to Thriving, Winning and Succeeding”.

The book is none of these things. It is not a warrior philosophy. It is not Asian in the sense of being related to any traditional Asian values or ancient Asian strategies for getting ahead (though the theory was created by an Asian, it is a recent idea). And it will not allow one really to thrive, win, or succeed at anything.

All it teaches is how to be a bigger lying and selfish bastard than everyone else. That is it.

Chin-Ning Chu by no means came up with the idea. Instead, she borrowed the idea from someone else, padding her book with a lot of new age self-help jargon and so-called insights into the Asian mind and the Asian way of doing business, and giving examples in an attempt to show that famous people of the past followed these ideas to great personal success. Nothing in her book is particularly new, or insightful. And if you do business in Asia using this philosophy, most people in Asia will not see you as a good businessperson, or even as someone that they would necessarily want to do business with: They would simply see you as a lying and selfish bastard. Even people who adhere to this philosophy would see you that way, as it is not philosophy for how to win friends and influence people, but rather how to use and abuse others for personal gain.

So, what is the theory, in detail?

The person who came up with the theory was a man by the name of Li Zongwu (1879–1944). Li was a bureaucrat for the Qing Dynasty who lost his position and status when the Dynasty was overthrown in 1911. After losing his position, he sat down and poured all of his bitterness and hatred for traditional Chinese morality out into his book, The Thick Black Theory.

There are two elements to the the thick black theory. The first is the Asian idea of face. If someone has a thin face, then that person is artless and devoid of hypocrisy, as one can always look through his face and see his heart. While this is normally considered a virtue in both the East and the West, Li advocated having as thick a face as possible, so that no one would ever know what you are thinking. The second element to his theory is one’s heart, which of course means one’s innermost soul, but more particularly refers to one’s true intentions. A person with a white heart is one whose heart is set on good, which has all the virtues one normally prizes in both the East and the West. Li advocated having the darkest heart possible.

This theory was not and still is not very popular in Asia, and Li’s book was not a success. However, one early adherent to the thick, black theory was apparently Chairman Mao himself. When the communists took power in 1949, many people wanted to know what Mao would be like as a ruler, and the widely held answer was that people should read Li’s book. Perhaps because of the link to Mao, after China opened up in the early 1980s, the thick, black theory experienced a sort of boom within China and within the Chinese diaspora. From there, it gathered some adherents in other cultures in Asia and even in the West. It is said that many Chinese businessmen around the world secretly practice this theory–“secretly” being the key word, as one who does so openly would not really have all that thick of a face.

Chu and some thick-black adherents try to justify the thick, black theory on the same basis that Machiavelli justified his ideas of being a ruler–a person must behave this way for the greater good. What is common is that both theories see the world in zero-sum terms–one’s personal success necessarily entails someone else’s personal failure. In a zero-sum world, one must be ruthless, or one cannot survive or prosper. (The zero-sum worldview is debunked here.) However, in the case of Machiavelli, his advice was for a ruler over a state, and it was for the good of the general welfare. While Machiavelli was wrong, his theory had a moral basis of sorts: A ruler must be absolutely ruthless and amoral, or his people would die. The thick, black theory, on the other hand, provides no such moral justification. In her book, Chu goes to great lengths to try to demonstrate that by pursuing the thick, black theory, society would benefit. However, all of her examples for how pursuing unbridled, ruthless selfishness and narcissism might benefit society fall apart under even the most cursory scrutiny. Instead, all Chu really provides is the idea that one must harm others for strictly personal gain.

This whole exercise is not at all theoretical for me. My boss is an avid adherent of the thick, black theory. Somehow, he has convinced himself that he must sacrifice all morality, kindness, and decency on the altar of his own career success, his family finances, and his retirement fund. He has willed himself to become a sociopath for personal profit. He closed down one whole division of the company, sacrificing the jobs of the people who worked there, for strictly personal and not business reasons. He is now quite clearly contemplating the sacrificing of all the jobs in my department, and this after we have completed a project that will generate millions of dollars of revenue for the company for years to come. Yet, even while he is closing departments and generating no new work, the head office is advocating expansion and new projects, so no one could reasonably say that his actions are benefiting the company or are within his mandate.

Surely, there are perverse incentives at play. By cutting staff, he increases the profit margins so he can get higher bonuses for himself. Meanwhile, when the revenue from our just-completed project arrives, he can point to that as a sign of success, without the head office realizing that he killed the goose the laid the golden egg and sacrificed millions more in profits for the company, just so that his ledger would look neat and he could get a greater personal reward.

In the end, however, he cannot be classed as anything but a moron, and I pity him. It is not as though he will be able to buy a house or even a car through the extra money he will make through his actions–we are talking TV money (a really nice TV, but a TV all the same). Yet through his actions he is destroying the livelihood of tens of people and denying the company millions of dollars in profits that it could have. By just showing a tiny ounce of compassion and concern for others, he would only lose a very small amount of personal profit, and gain his soul.

There is a path that leads to death, and he has chosen to take it.

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