A good traveler leaves no traces
The ancient Chinese sage and founder of Taoism, Laozi, proclaimed that, "a good traveler leaves no traces.” This modest sentence holds the key to Asian thought. In the next five minutes I will tell you about main differences between Eastern and Western mentalities and highlight some advantages and disadvantages of both.
Let’s return to Laozi. For us in the West his statement makes no sense. Empirically we know that every action produces some kind of trace, whether it’s an animal’s footprint in the snow or a crushed cigarette on the sidewalk. Is Laozi merely using a poor figure of speech? Don’t we all leave traces on this earth, signs that we have passed this way? We all do, as Laozi surely was aware. We’ll come back to what he really meant in a couple of minutes.
In Europe around 1500 something decisive happened. Not only did modern money, commerce and what we now call the market economy emerge at that time. No, something even more significant developed: the notion of the individual took root in the West. Thus, we began to think in terms of our life’s work, of milestones that would define our identity. In short the word "I" became a cornerstone of our culture. These concepts are the fruits of the Renaissance in Europe.
This way of looking at the world is foreign to Eastern culture. For Asians the way – the journey that constitutes a life – that is what’s important, not what specifically has been achieved. In Chinese thought, the Big Bang of creation is secondary to the continuous process that is life, which rolls on without beginning or end. The ideal is to be as supple as the wind, as fluid as water. In the West, a fully defined, optimized personality is the ideal; in the East, the goal is the dissolution of the personality.
I’ve often asked myself if the Eastern approach is superior. Does it make Asians better prepared for the great changes that are inevitably coming our way? Over the past 500 years, the Western model – and the market economy, in particular – has clearly had the edge. Globalization began in Europe, after all, spreading to America and then the rest of the world.
China tried to seal itself off from these developments for too long. In 1800 it was still a leading economic power but by 1900 it was utterly dominated by the West. But Asia learned from its century of colonial humiliation and today seems quite fit for the future.
One thing is clear: When two great cultures collide, each is heavily influenced by the other. And something new is born. Think of Greek culture, which first encountered Buddhist India when Alexander the Great reached Gandhara and Afghanistan. The art that emerged was radically new in its Asian homeland. The influence of classical Greek figures is plain to see in the Buddhist sculptures of the period.
And when the ancient Persians came in contact with the Greeks – in Lydia, in today’s Turkey, the crossroads of cultures – a currency system was born, based on gold and silver coins, that lasted into the 20th century.
In our Western, money-oriented society, these encounters also sparked a rethinking and an increased focus on versatility, on welcoming change and actively engaging with it, with less emphasis on achievement per se.
Consider the modern entrepreneur. He understands that risk is part of trying to build a business. He reacts, flexibly, to developments; he does not aim to build a monument. I recall a television interview with the successful Swiss industrialist Peter Spuhler. The subject was the strong Swiss franc and its negative consequences for products Made in Switzerland. It was clear from Spuhler’s answers that he was focused more on how to meet the challenge of change in his daily business than on theories and economic forecasts. He was weighing his options as an entrepreneur. So, coming back to Laozi’s dictum, we could say he attempted to leave no trace behind. He wasn’t fighting change; he was keeping pace with it.
- Looking at global economic growth over the past two decades, it’s obvious that the Eastern approach to dealing with change is winning today. The Asian financial crisis of 1997 was grim, but many vital lessons were learned. When the global financial crisis struck in 2008, although its businesses were globally active, Asia managed quite well indeed. Trying to resist or ignore disruptive changes to the global economy – especially the pseudo-strategy of attempting to withdraw from the difficulties and close the door behind you – is certain to fail. This is a danger for Switzerland as it flirts with dead-end ideas like immigration stops and outdated nationalistic myths. The same warning holds true for China. Be careful that if you must leave traces they are not the skid marks of a car going off a cliff.