Business Culture

Leadership lessons from a 20th century Shanghai drug dealer, Du Yuesheng (杜月笙 – Dù yuèshēng)3 min read

2 March 2021 2 min read


Leadership lessons from a 20th century Shanghai drug dealer, Du Yuesheng (杜月笙 – Dù yuèshēng)3 min read

Reading Time: 2 minutes

There’s something called the ‘three bowls of noodles philosophy’ which was first coined by Du Yuesheng (杜月笙 – Dù yuèshēng) – a mafia boss who lived between 1888-1951 and basically ran Shanghai in the later years of the Nationalist Government rule until the Communists took over in 1949.

The three Bowls of Noodles of Life are:

体面 (tǐ miàn) – ‘body noodles’

情面 (qíng miàn) – ‘feelings noodles’

场面 (cháng miàn) – ‘drama noodles’

Strictly speaking this recipe for success does not have any bowls of noodles in it at all.

The word ‘面’ (miàn) does mean noodles (it’s a different character in traditional Chinese, but the same in simplified characters). It also means face (as in giving face, or a physical face of something), or level, or aspect, amongst other things. Here it means an aspect of something

Du came from abject poverty in rural China. His parents had died by the time he was 9. He was raised by his grandmother. His professional life started as a teenaged fruit seller in Shanghai. After which he became drawn into the Shanghai underworld – the Shanghai Green Gang (上海青帮 – shàng hǎi qīng bāng), a mafia organisation that ran Shanghai at the time, and one which he ended up leading.

Although Du’s story is not readily accessible in China – certainly the fruitier parts of it are still not – but his wisdom and formula for success has enjoyed an official renaissance recently. He is now referred to as a 大亨 (dà-héng), which means ‘mogul’ or a ‘tycoon.’

In his three bowls of noodles approach, Du took what he saw as the three most crucial aspects to achieving success and made it simple recipe for life.

Body Noodles – Tǐ miàn (体面)

Tǐ miàn in Chinese means ‘appropriate’, ‘respectful, of ‘having face.’ The Tǐ part means ‘body’, in this case it is closer to the word 得体 which means appropriate.

It’s all about face – maintaining one’s own face in all situations.

Emotional Noodles – Qíng-miàn (情面)

The next part is about everyone else. 情 (qíng) means feelings or emotions. Qíng-miàn means the feelings, and face, of the people you are dealing with.

Du used to say:

Wealth can always be spent; emotions are eternal. So while others are saving money (存钱), I am save friendships (存交情).

What Du refers to is building friendships based on mutual trust, interest and need.

In the words of modern Western management speak, Du was talking about EQ (情商 – qíng shāng).

Drama Noodles – Cháng miàn

Cháng means venue, or place. Cháng miàn is a scene, or what is happening. It’s about the drama of a situation.

To have good Drama Noodles you need to understand the plot, your part in it and how to deliver your best performance, while understanding what everyone else is up to.

Let’s face it, Du was a drug-dealing mafia boss so its probably best not to take too much of his advice too literally. But nonetheless, the Three Bowls of Noodles approach to life is a helpful and innovative way to understand China, as well as offering a practical way to approach life.

For me, there are three bowls of takeaway noodles from Du’s words of wisdom:

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