The write stuff: An ancient secret to assessing ethics

Around the world the fallout from a raft of corporate corruption and financial mismanagement scandals have seen growing calls for a renewed focus on business ethics and good governance.

Yet evaluating an employee’s or official’s moral compass is not easy. Likewise building an ethical element into a job recruitment process is a challenging task. So is there a way to predetermine or assess an individual’s ethical behaviour, beyond simply watching and waiting until he or she strays or oversteps the mark?

To use a medical analogy, prevention is better than cure. Rather than waiting for the sickness to strike (while hoping it doesn’t), can we predetermine an individual’s inclination to behave ethically?

One answer to this question may lie in ancient imperial China – and, more specifically, in its approach to poetry.

A poem is an expression of an individual’s inner world; ethics form a critical part of that inner world; therefore, high quality poetry expresses a high quality inner world.

From its capital in Chang’an – the modern day city of Xi’an – the Tang Dynasty ruled China for almost 300 years between 618 and 907 AD. It is considered a golden age in Chinese civilisation; a prosperous and culturally rich period, and one of the greatest for Chinese literature.

As with many other dynasties, the Tang had strict examinations and testing procedures for selecting its civil servants. Recruitment for prospective employees of the Tang empire placed a heavy emphasis on ethics and, uniquely, included an assessment of the quality of a candidate’s poetry.

The Tang Dynasty is considered a golden age in Chinese civilisation and one of the greatest for Chinese literature.

 

In a research study with colleagues at NUS Business School and Nanjing University, we were curious whether this focus on poetry as a test of a candidate’s character might – in part, at least – account for the dynasty’s unprecedented power and prosperity.

Window on character

According to ancient Chinese philosophy, poetry acts as a window on the character of the author, reflecting the writer’s “inner purpose” and ethical aspirations. Across imperial history dozens of politicians, artists and writers have drawn connections between poetic skill and an individual’s knowledge, virtue and morality.

In the fifth century, for example, writer Liu Xe compiled “The Literary Mind and the Carving of Dragons”, considered one of the most influential works on Chinese literary aesthetics. The book begins with a quote: “Poetry speaks to one’s heart… Within the heart, it is the lofty ambition; spoken, it is poetry.”

Several centuries later in the Song Dynasty, artist Zhao Mengjian (1199–1295) wrote: “Poetry is not just a skill. It is a reflection of virtue and a chime from the heart.”

Many Western writers and philosophers have also suggested a link between poetic ability and a person’s ethics. A poem is an expression of an individual’s inner world; ethics form a critical part of that inner world; therefore, high quality poetry expresses a high quality inner world.

For the Tang Dynasty administrators, this was a view they firmly subscribed to. To them the ability to write good poetry was an indicator of high ethical values, concern for others, and thus the mark of a good imperial servant.

This, at least, was the thinking. The question for our research was did this belief translate into practical reality?

Imperial records

Although the Tang Dynasty ended more than a thousand years ago, many records from the era have survived. In addition to histories, such as the multi-volume “A New History of Tang”, first published in the mid-11th century, these include archives detailing the activities and behaviour of Tang officials and their attainment in the imperial examinations.

The Tang Dynasty was centred in the modern day city of Xi’an

 

To grade the ethics of Tang Dynasty officials, we used these records to identify and assess ethical behaviour using traditional Confucian standards. These included factors such as loyalty, trustworthiness, freedom from corruption and several others. Markers of low ethical behaviour, on the other hand, included greed for power, cruelty and bribery among others.

To measure skills in poetry, we are fortunate that several volumes of Tang era poems have been passed down. Foremost among these is “A Collection of 300 Tang Poems”, an anthology compiled in the 18th century by scholar Sun Zhu (not to be confused with Sun Tzu of “Art of War” fame).

This book, still widely seen in Chinese households, is regarded by literary experts and historians as containing some of the most artistically significant examples of Tang poetry. Therefore we regarded inclusion in the collection as a benchmark of high poetic talent.

Another route was using the Tang imperial examination records, which included an evaluation of the candidate’s poetry. Those recorded as having passed the highest levels of the exams, attaining the status of “Jinshi”, were regarded as having high quality poetic skills.

Positive link

By cross-referencing these books and imperial records against each other we were able to build a strong sample pool of imperial civil servants, matching their poetic talent with their ethical behaviour.

Poet civil servants consistently displayed a higher level of ethics than non-poets.

Excluding those whose level of ethics was ambiguous, those who had military roles, or those who may have obtained their position through family connections, what we found showed a strong positive link between quality of poetry and an individual’s ethics. In short, poet civil servants consistently displayed a higher level of ethics than non-poets.

Moreover, our findings showed evidence that the Tang dynasty’s imperial exam system was potentially capable of assessing and selecting civil service officials based on ethics. Specifically the Tang records show that a higher level of poetic talent – reflected either in a strong imperial exam performance, or inclusion in Sun Zhu’s poetry anthology – was associated with individuals with a higher level of ethical behaviour.

Perhaps most significantly the Tang records also show that civil servants who were selected via the imperial examination – the Jinshi – were significantly more likely to have taken stances or actions that were consistent with good ethics. This raises an intriguing possibility that the success of the Tang Dynasty had some relation to its unique selection process.

Interestingly, immediately after the Tang Dynasty, the popularity of poetry began to wane in Chinese culture. Subsequent dynasties dropped poetic skills from the imperial examination system and China entered a long period of gradual decline.

Recruiters’ tools

So what can we learn from this?

Numeric reasoning, personality and other aptitude tests are commonly applied in a range of job recruitment processes today, particularly those which require a high degree of financial responsibility.

Adding poetry composition to the list of recruiters’ tools would doubtless raise a good few eyebrows.

Nonetheless our findings provide some interesting fuel for thought on potential indicators of an individual’s ethical character and value. A candidate for finance manager, for example, might prove exceptional in numeracy, financial literacy and logic reasoning, but do they also have the right character to use those skills ethically?

Today we might not consider poetry skills to be especially relevant to assessing ethical value, but our findings show that ancient Chinese philosophers found a meaningful and creative solution to the challenge.

These ancient arts offer some interesting clues to recruiters seeking better methods of gauging our inner-selves.

  • Author Profile

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    Oliver Zhen Li is Musim MAS Chair Professor in Sustainability, Director of the China Business Centre and professor in the Department of Accounting at National University of Singapore (NUS) Business School.

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