Kongzi, Mengzi, Laozi, Hanfeizi, Zhuangzi, Xunzi, Mozi, Guiguzi and Sunzi. Smart guys for hire. Let’s call them the “Zi Crew.”

Don’t be intimidated by their names. These master thinkers (the ‘zi’ in their names means ‘master’) were among the earliest incubators of of a Smart Virus circling the globe inspiring the likes of Thales and Pythagoras in Greece, Zarathustra in Persia and the Seven Rishis in Vedic India. It was arguably the first time in history when human beings everywhere started using more of their brains to ask the important existential questions.

Outside of China, the three most famous of the Zi Crew are:
  • Kongzi = Confucius = revered thinker who inspired Confucianism

  • Laozi = Lao Tzu = Lao Tsu = illusive mystic who inspired Daoism (Taoism)

  • Sunzi = Sun Tzu = Sun Wu = military strategist who inspired The Art of War


More A Way Of Life Than A Religion

The Zi Crew came to define China's “Hundred Schools of Thought” era spanning the Spring & Autumn and Warring States periods 722-277BCE. They advised rulers, read fortunes and created ordered ways of seeing the world in highly chaotic times. It must have been an amazing time to be alive. Well, at least for the philosophers. Probably less so for the average Zhou caught up in the endless warfare being waged by rapacious warlords.The Zi Crew’s existential, social and cultural commentary continues to have a profound impact on business, government and family in modern China and beyond. It’s central to how Chinese see the world and understanding their mindset.



Kongzi (Confucius) was born to a poor family of royal descent, grew up without a father, was raised by his mother, married early, had a son, then left home and over time ascended in class to become a trusted advisor to heads of state. His teachings were less about reasoned arguments like Socrates and the Greeks and more about alluding to how one might best react in various situations. Kongzi was our planet’s first self-help guru.
If I am walking with two other men, each will serve as my teacher. I will pick out the good points of the one and imitate them, and will identify the bad points of the other and correct them in myself." - Confucius


Be All That You Can Be

He aspired for people to become the best possible versions of themselves through a set of principles — living with integrity and dignity, staying true to one’s personal values, being free from worries and fears, saying less and doing more and evaluating oneself against internal not external standards. Hard to argue with that advice. Even the U.S. Army’s advertising slogan “Be all that you can be” echoes Confucian values. Kongzi was anti-war, however, and focused on building a moral and just society, one person at a time.

Kongzi once said, “Courage without morality is a recipe for disaster.” His teachings also showed remarkable insights at an interpersonal level and were based on empathy. He promoted caring for others, but never in a manipulative way. His advice to parents was to help their children become independent as early as possible, though some Chinese parents seem to encourage more dependence in their little emperors than do their Western counterparts.
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Lao Tzu

Laozi (Lao Tzu) was a natural mystic, an elusive free spirit who saw humanity & nature together as part of the Way. He believed those who understand their innate connection with the whole would never act out of narrow self-interest.

Be content with what you have; rejoice in the way things are. When you realize there is nothing lacking, the whole world belongs to you." - Lao Tzu

Laozi’s Dàodéjīng 道德经 (lit. “Way Virtue Classic” aka Tao-te-ching) cautioned against many of the self-improvement rituals later embraced by the Confucians. Our ability to think rationally and “control” our destiny, in Laozi’s eyes, is what gets us into trouble. It’s not the natural disasters that set us back. Our worst catastrophes are man-made.


The Dao Seems Nonsensical, Yet It Makes Perfect Sense

The Dào 道 has been described in many ways: the source or root of all things, spontaneous and instinctive, intuitive not logical, our innermost nature, the formless form. One can “know and be not knowing” or “do non-doing” without setting off any logical alarm bells. So just go with the flow, dude. The rigidly logical Sheldon Coopers of the world would not follow Laozi on Twitter or like his Facebook page. They would spam him.

Laozi takes adversity in stride, recognizing that all force eventually defeats itself. This is the logic behind wú wéi or “non-doing,” often misinterpreted as inaction rather than its true meaning of non-interference. In other words, understanding that which already is and going with the flow. The nonviolent resistance of Mandela and Gandhi is pure Dao -- inaction in action.

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Sun Tzu

Some intellectual Chinese may object to our connecting Sunzi with Kongzi and Laozi in the same discussion. There is no doubt, however, that Sunzi’s The Art of War continues to influence more non-Chinese leaders (military, political & business) worldwide than any other Zi Crew writing.


The Controversy

Sunzi (Sun Tzu) was a military genius who advised kings and codified a system of warfare which held “subduing the enemy without fighting” as its highest victory. He is considered the author of The Art of War, though some historians assert his original Spring & Autumn period masterwork, filled with chivalry and honor, was amended during the Warring States period to include spying, cheating, bribing and other distinctly non-Confucian activities.

If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of a hundred battles." - Sun Tzu

By contrast, Kongzi and Laozi were both “give peace a chance” guys fed up the endless fighting of big egoed warlords. Despite Sunzi’s prominence, his thinking exerts far less influence on the modern Chinese person’s daily life. That said, you’re asking for trouble operating a business in China if you’re not well-versed in Sunzi’s strategies and tactics.


His Doctrine Is About Winning, Pure And Simple

The opening of The Art of War states that warring is among the utmost affairs of the State, though Sunzi emphasizes that armed struggle is just one aspect of leveraging all resources — popular support, natural environment, historical trends, geographic advantages, qualified leadership and more — towards achieving victory in ‘war’ in its widest definition, that is, imposing one’s will on others. Traces of Sunzi’s doctrine are everywhere, from Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince to Harvard Professor Michael Porter’s Competitive Advantage and Robert Greene’s The 48 Laws of Power.

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Obiwan: “Use the force, Luke!”
Luke: “Obiwan, coming out of the closet…as a Taoist?”



For all their differences, Kongzi and Laozi seemed to come to similar conclusions on life as they grew older. Following the middle road, avoiding extremes, reducing material clutter, keeping things simple and “doing what’s in front of you, as well as you can” are all powerful Zi Crew stress-relief prescriptions for the modern age. And besides grumbling words of contempt about greedy and corrupt rulers, the bottom line of their teachings is about increasing our ability to hold onto happiness. Happiness that is independent of our external material living conditions and more about cultivating an attitude to withstand suffering in life.

The Zi masters also remind us that life comes down to our individual choices. It’s the strength of action, not the strength of words. And in “doing nothing,” nothing remains undone.


This post is excerpted from the upcoming book <China Simplified: History’s Greatest Hits> written by Stewart Lee Beck and Sun Zhumin.