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A Chinese Perspective on Change


Special issue call for papers from Journal of Organizational Change Management

Guest Editors: Ken Baskin, Rodolphe Ocler and Check-Teck Foo

Motto

Of “all the high cultures, [the Chinese] is most different from ours in its ways of thinking. Every culture is based on assumption so taken for granted that they are barely conscious, and it is only when we study highly different culture and language that we become aware of them.” (Watts, 1975)

Rationale

In spite of the emphasis on changing the very model with which we conceptualize organizations (see, for example, Bennis, 2009) in management literature since the mid-1960s, efforts to do so have almost universally disappointed. Why? Jullien (2004: viii), nearly 30 years after Watts, suggests one answer. We need, he explains “to attempt a shift . . . away from our normal thinking habits, a move from one framework to another – from [the West] to China and back again – which will undermine our representations and get our thoughts moving . . . shifting the impediment that is preventing us from perceiving what we have always blocked out of our thinking...”

Focus

When Chinese and Western philosophy began to take the forms in which we now know them, about 2500 years ago, they diverged radically. Western philosophy embraced the logic and sense of stability found in Plato and Aristotle, rejecting the emphasis on change of Heraclites, for example. For Chinese philosophy, on the other hand, beginning some 5,000 years ago with Fu-Xi, constant change was the essence of life, rejecting the “proto-logic” of the Later Mohists (Graham, 1989). This divergence apparently reflects the two cultures’ radically different origins – China as a geographically isolated yet vast country of farmers and the West as a constantly evolving mixture of hunter-invaders with a long tradition of commerce (see, for example, Feng, 1976; Fei, 1992). To survive, the Chinese farmer had to learn to adapt to constant change in Nature’s cycle – day (bright) transforming to night (dark), the seasons,  growth of plants, the periodic floods and droughts. The Westerner, on the other hand, lived in a culture that emerged from the commercial tradition of Rome and access to the sea, so that survival depended on the ability to make distinctions between things to be exchanged. This different world view was translated, as A.C. Graham (1989) noted, into philosophy, where “the crucial question for [Chinese philosophers] is not the Western philosopher’s ‘What is the truth?’ but ‘Where is the Way?’, the way to order the state and the proper conduct of one’s life.”

Figure 1Chinese culture and philosophy, then, emphasize the importance of understanding the nature of change and the importance of dealing with it effectively. Not surprisingly, two of the best known works of Chinese philosophy, the Book of Changes (I Ching) and the Classic of the Way and Power (Tao Te Ching), are extensive meditations on change and how to live with it to one’s advantage. In the introduction to his 1923 translation of the I Ching, Wilhelm explains that underlying the book “is the idea of change. . . . He who has perceived the meaning of change fixes his attention no longer on the transitory individual things but on the immutable, eternal law at work in all change. This law is the Tao of Lao-tse, the course of things, the principle of the one in the many” (Wilhelm/ Baynes, 1967).

Rather than the mechanical, linearly oriented freeze-unfreeze-freeze model of so much organizational change literature, the Chinese model is organic, often circular, emphasizing polarities (Yin-Yang). It is much more an ineluctable process that one may adapt to and less of “managing” sequentially. In this special issue, we are encouraging thinkers to explore this model, examine possible analogues in other work being done today, and apply it to specific examples in organizations. For example of the empirically grounded work on forecastability, chaos and foresight (Foo & Foo, 2003) resulting in cultural insights of contrasting differences (Figure 1).

Call for Papers

While we remain open to various theoretical, methodological and empirical approaches, we expect to focus on three general types of paper:

  • Theoretical examinations of the Chinese conception of change
  • Comparisons of this conception of change with Western analogues (see, for example, Baskin, 2007; or Latour, 2007, with his concept of actor-network-theory and organization as evolving networks of both human and non-human elements, much like the tao)
  • Practical applications of this conception of change in organizations

We are especially interested in practical examples of the Chinese concept of change and case histories where they are applied in existing organizations.

Proposed papers should be submitted to [email protected] by 1st October 2011.

References

Baskin, K. (2007). Ever the ‘twain shall meet. Chinese Management Studies 1(1):  57-68.

Bennis, W.G. (2009). Changing organizations, in Organization change: A comprehensive reader, eds. W.W. Burke, D.G. Lake, and J.W. Paine. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Fei X. (1992). From the soil: The foundations of Chinese society, trans. Hsiang t’u C., Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.

Feng Y. (1976). A short History of Chinese philosophy: A systematic account of Chinese thought from its origins to the present day. Ed. by Bodde, D. NY: The Free Press.

Foo CT and Foo CT (2003). Forecastability, Chaos and Foresight, Foresight Vol 5 (5),  22-33

Graham, A.C. (1989). Disputers of the Tao: Philosophical Argument in Ancient China. Peru, IL: Open Court Publishing.

Jullien, F. (2004) A Treatise on Efficacy: Between Western and Chinese Thinking, trans. Lloyd, J.  Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

Watts, A. (1975). Tao: The watercourse way, NY: Pantheon Books.

Wilhelm, R. & Baynes, C.F. , trans. (1967). The I Ching. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.