Classics Idioms

A Buddhist idiom about managing change 道高一尺 (Dào gāo yī chǐ)2 min read

29 March 2021 2 min read


A Buddhist idiom about managing change 道高一尺 (Dào gāo yī chǐ)2 min read

Reading Time: 2 minutes

Getting things done in China can be difficult.

Someone in China once told me:

“If you can get on in China, you can succeed anywhere in the world. China is the most difficult place to get things done.”

But why is China so challenging?

There are lots of short answers. Ask anyone who’s been there recently and they will give you a list: language, culture, technology, the Great Fire Wall and more.

If I had to chose a one-word answer, it would be: change.

Wang Qishan, China’s Vice President, has done his fair share of change management in difficult circumstances. He is regarded as one of China’s best crisis managers; he was in charge of China’s economy at the time of the 2008 financial crisis.

Wang was at the World Economic Forum at Davos in January 2019.

The speech itself was carefully scripted but the Q&A afterwards was peppered with subtle (and some not-so-subtle) messages and interesting anecdotes about China.

He improvised with an old Chinese idiom referring back to when he was in charge of the Central Bank, about the role of a regulator in managing change, while not squashing innovation.


(Dào gāo yī chǐ, Mó gāo yī zhàng)

“Virtue is one foot tall, evil is ten feet high”

This is originally a Buddhist teaching which means that for every foot (尺) of good or virtuousness (道), there are ten feet (丈) of temptation (魔) waiting to take those that are on the Path, off it.

Mr Wang flipped it round, using it in a different way: the good (道) is more powerful than the evil (魔), but only just – ten feet vs 8.5 feet.

He used it to describe the interplay of the law or the system that is continuously having to catch up with how the markets, and the real world, are innovating.

Paraphrasing a bit (ok, quite a lot), he then said:

“The interplay between good and evil is a dynamic process. Likewise, I used to tell my colleagues at the Central Bank that this is the same for regulation or the law, too. For example, it is impossible to catch 100% of thieves. To think it is possible is to be an idealist. It’s not realistic. If we catch 60% of them, that’s a good result. In fact, that is great because the remaining 40% continue to test the system, so it continues to adapt and improve and grow stronger. You can’t make the rules to stop something before it has even happened. Rule makers are having to continually adapt to change and innovation. Allowing this change to thrive is how mankind can advance.”

After his speech, when asked the question: “when is China’s economy going to start its down-turn having experienced a 10-year up-swing?” Wang replied: “We have challenges, but I don’t believe we are at the end of a cycle, we are simply at the start of the next phase.”

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