The Art of Groveling by Gao Lee Ji (translated by Sir Charles Peckerwood)

“The man who grovels makes a much smaller target.” (Gao Lee Ji, c. 475 BCE)

There has been an explosion of interest in the humanities in the United States recently, and one of the major contributors to this has been the Business Sections of airport bookstores.  Management book sections in particular have become the primary American source of knowledge about Asian cultures.  The shelves almost overflow with serious scholarly works on the thought of the Chinese sage K’ung-Tzu (Confucius), the general Sun Tzu, the master dog breeder Shar Pei, and the philosopher Bruce Lee.  The public’s voracious appetite for Oriental wisdom that can be applied to practical business situations is so great that the book Go Rin No Sho (The Book of the Five Rings), Miyamoto Musashi’s esoteric 17th century handbook on Japanese sword fighting has been among the most frequently gifted management books at office holiday parties for over thirty years. 

It was therefore with great anticipation that we awaited the release of the new translation by Sir Charles Peckerwood of the fifth century BCE Chinese business classic The Art of Groveling by the immortal Gao Lee Ji (Panopticon Press, 2013, 554 pages).  Although little known outside of China, Gao Lee Ji was the first Chinese sage that directly addressed what later became known as “business ethics”.

Gao Lee Ji (c.550 BCE – c.476 BCE) was the Prime Minister and Commander of the Armies under the Li Ping Emperor of the state of Wang Chung located in what is now the province of Kwangtung, in southern China.  He rose from obscure origins (several contemporary biographies of him survive, all contradictory but all pretty good) to become the de facto ruler of Wang Chung in 509 BCE.  At that time, the state of Wang Chung was the most prosperous in China and possessed the largest and most modern army.  But due to a series of unpredictable and unavoidable events that could have happened to anybody, by the eighth year of Gao Lee Ji’s management the kingdom had been utterly laid waste and conquered and the Emperor himself had been impaled on one of his own banners and his body mounted over the main gate of his capital city.

Gao Lee Ji, surveying these events from his opulent retirement palace in the peaceful city of Ho An, 500 miles to the north, decided to take up his writing brush and over the next 25 years of his comfortable existence he penned miscellaneous anecdotes of his life and the lives of the Sages as well as words of wisdom to guide future generations.  These were collected after his death and published in a volume called “The Art of Groveling”.

Although some scholars can see the influence of Gao Lee Ji running through all subsequent periods of Chinese history, the manuscript of “The Art of Groveling” was only known through second hand references by other historians and philosophers.  It was presumed lost until its unexpected discovery in the luggage of the last Manchu Emperor Pu Yi by the famous modern historian Hu Nu as he was helping load the bags onto a truck in 1923. 

This discovery led to a Renaissance of Gao Lee Ji studies in modern China.  So powerful was the influence of Gao Lee Ji during the formative period of the Chinese Revolution, that at least one of the Sayings of Chairman Mao that appear in the famous Little Red Book is believed to have actually originated with the great sage:

"If the tree does not bend, it will break.  And in order to bend, the tree
Must always know from which way the wind is blowing."

The words of Gao Lee Ji will positively resonate with the business reader.  His analects are so fresh and profound that one can expect that they will quickly attain the level of cliché in the American business community.

Here are some representative selections from the pen of the master.


“Responsibility is a cake to be shared by many; credit is a cherry to be eaten by only one.”

"There are three things that are worth their weight in gold; a prudent statesman, a cunning general, and a beautiful woman with very low self esteem."
The Sage Gao Lee Ji once said to Fen Shu Lu "The fastest way to improve your results is to lower your standards."
"One's courage increases in proportion to one's distance away from the enemy.  In all battles, find the position where your courage is the strongest."

When the Imperial Chamberlain laughed at General Gao Lee Ji after he dropped his Scepter of Authority at the Grand Military Review, the General said to him "The superior man forgives all slights."  Then the General told him to think about that as he had him carted off to the beheading grounds.

"A secret hoard of gold in a non-descript house in a distant city can be a hidden blessing."

"Sometimes "it could be worse" is the highest quality to which one can aspire.”
"Be careful in the details of all things.  Even Confucius was once dismissed by Prince  Chung because he had a particularly long nose hair that the Prince could not get out of his mind."

"The ideas of a Court Official of the 3rd Rank are always 70 percent brilliant; of a Court Official of the 2nd Rank 80 percent brilliant, of a Court Official of the 1st rank 90 percent brilliant.  The ideas of the Emperor are always 100 percent brilliant."

"One battle plan; many escape plans."

"To ensure good fortune for one's house, a gentleman must frequently honor his ancestors by visiting their tombs, kowtowing three times before the ancestral tablets, and burning fine sticks of incense.  If this does not bring good fortune, a gentleman must look for new ancestors to honor."

"A great general obscures his true plans from others, cultivating mysteriousness to the point of invisibility.  That way, if something goes wrong, he can claim that he wasn't there."

"Know thy self, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand opportunities to flee."

"If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the result of a hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, perhaps an introduction is in order. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, perhaps you are in the wrong profession."

"Fighting with a large army under your command is nowise different from fighting with a small one: whatever the size, make sure they are all between you and the enemy"

"Having good subordinates and learning how to delegate is half the battle. And if what you are delegating is responsibility for the defeat, it can be all the battle."

"In war as in peace, he who would seek promotion must learn to bend over in order to touch the sky.”

The Great Sage Hsuang Tzu said to the General Sun Tzu after watching him defeat the combined armies of Lu Shun and Cheng Po "Wow, that was great boss! Great! You must be the greatest general that ever lived!"

"In war, there is no situation too dire or problem too thorny that you can't run away from it."

"If your opponent is of choleric temperament, seek to irritate him. If your opponent is of pacific temperament, seek to pacify him. If your opponent is of calculating temperament, seek to hire him as your accountant."

"To know your Enemy, you must become your Enemy. Once you have become your Enemy, surrender immediately, and declare a great victory!"

"A careful general keeps one foot in the stirrup, even when urinating."

"A man who is destined for true greatness is the man who takes personal responsibility for all things around him; except those things that fail."

“When the Emperor comes to review the field of victory, it is most auspicious to present to him the head of the enemy commander for inspection.  If the head of the enemy commander is not available, any suitable looking head will do.”

"A good general anticipates all outcomes. A wise general anticipates all ways out."

“If one prevaricates long enough, the very stones of the citadel will turn to dust.”

“A good leader doesn’t fix what isn’t broken.  A great leader breaks it in order to fix it and take the credit for it.”

“It is not enough to suck up; one must also push down.”

“It is only necessary to leave the burning palace the moment before the ceiling comes crashing down.”

“It is good to pull oneself up by one’s bootstraps.  It is even better to pull oneself up by someone else’s bootstraps.”

“A coward, in victory, struts and brays. A coward, in defeat, changes sides, then struts and brays.”

“When the council is about to make a decision after months of fruitless deliberation, it is time to add new members.”

“Sublime is the little thrill I feel when an arrow or a responsibility whizzes by just past my ear.”

“The gazelle leading at the front is trampled by those behind.  The gazelle following at the rear lags and is eaten by tigers.  When the herd smells fear and sharply changes direction, it is the gazelle in the very middle who finds that his position has not changed in all of the chaos.”

“Regrettably, someone has to stay here and watch the fortress.”

“After I crossed the river, I cried real tears when I burned the last bridge between myself and my routed army.”

“It is hard to describe how honored I felt when I was told that, as the Emperor Li Ping was being impaled on his banner over the gate of his own fortress, the last thing he did was look up into the sky and scream out my name.”

“One can die a thousand deaths and still live in great comfort.”

“Time spent coming to know is better spent appearing to know.”

“It is not what is important but who thinks it is important that counts.”

“When the gates of Fu Lan fell to the invader, the Mayor Ling Po fled with the treasury and thus burdened was overtaken and slain.  Ling Po was a fool.  The time to flee with the treasury is before the war even begins!”

“It is inappropriate to hide one's light under a bushel.  On the other hand, if one can hide one's rival's light under a bushel, why not?”
“The man who said that good bookkeeping was both an art and a science was lying about the science part.”

“Beware of getting your tongue caught in the Emperor’s shoe strings.”

"Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles. Lying and vacillation are strong seconds."

“The perfect magistrate is both cruel and just.”

“With focus and practice, one can learn to have silently left the room before the valuable vase strikes the ground.”

“In justice consistency is all important.  A magistrate can be as arbitrary as he wishes, as long as he is consistently arbitrary.”

“The truly incorruptible command the highest price.”

“In government, I have burned down many a house to hide a stain I made on the carpet.

“A wise general makes sure that his supply line runs through his counting room.”

“The people glorify the hero and revile the villain.  But the one they imitate is the mediocrity.”

“In war, it is better to eat your last groom than your last horse.”

“Who says that the leech must work harder than the hippopotamus?”

“I knew that I had achieved perfect harmony between power and responsibility when I had acquired the highest civil and military offices in the land and yet I could spend the entire day discussing whether I should wear the yellow gown with the red shoes or the red gown with the yellow shoes.”

“To achieve a life of perfect simplicity, it is only necessary to reach the place where the answer to every question is “As you say, Majesty.”

“A truly determined official can hang on by his very lips.”

“If the emperor cannot see it, it does not exist.”

“More gravity is necessary the higher one rises”

“The floor in front of the throne feels pleasantly cool against my forehead.”

“You may call me a worm that grovels on its belly.  But say what you will, in the end it is the worm that conquers the man.”

"The skillful general chooses his field of battle with deception in mind. It is considered
the height of generalship for the enemy be so fooled as to not turn up."

"The Son of Heaven rails against the supplicant's hollow flattery. Bribery, on the other hand is very well received."

“A pound of gold weighs much more than a ton of assurances.”

“When climbing in society, a ladder made of skulls may not be very attractive, but it works quite well.”

“When you learn to kill the messenger, all the news turns good.”

"The chain of command is like the melting snows of the Himalayas. Blame,
like orders, flow in but one direction..."

"The virtuous army is the embodiment of equanimity. Avoiding artificial distinctions, they sack friend and foe alike"

“When interrogating witnesses, a good magistrate should severely flog the guilty and the innocent alike, just to be fair.”

“I do not know the future.  But I do know a desirable forecast when I see one.”

“When I picked up my brush to write to the Emperor, my rival suddenly felt the back of his neck begin to tingle.”

“A wise courtier finds things for the Emperor that he has not lost.”

“The best place to dig for your prisoner’s valuables is under his fingernails.”

:”As long as the peasants like the music, they won’t pay any attention to the instruments.”

“I send out my tax collectors and the peasants curse and revile them and throw dung at them.  Then I flog my tax collectors and give the peasants half their money back and they hail me as their hero.”

“When I have 10,000 faithful soldiers at my back, I know that we are all facing in the wrong direction.”

“When you see the smoke from the enemy’s camp rising from the distant hills, it is time to prepare for battle.  When you see it rising from within your own walls, it is probably too late to prepare.”

“For most men, true immortality is more fleeting than the desire for true immortality.”

“The box that carries the tax receipts from the provinces to the capital always leaks.”

“In endeavors involving money, be prudent when asking for assistance.  One chopstick may be too few, but three chopsticks may be too many.”

“Be careful about looking into things that do not concern you.  Many an imperial eunuch began life as a young man who was simply curious about what goes on in the harem.”

“I never think about those who laughed at me as I began my rise to ultimate power.  Who knows where they are now?”

“It can always be worse.  And if it isn’t, you can always make it worse.”


unagidon is the pen name of a former dotCommonweal blogger.  

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