Leadership lessons from Confucius: plain white silk

plain white silk

Zixia asked: “What do these verses mean: ‘Ah, the lovely dimples of her artful smile! Ah, the black and white of her beautiful eyes! It’s on plain white silk that colors sparkle.’” Confucius said: “Painting comes after plain white silk.” Zixia said: “Is ritual also something that comes afterwards?” Confucius said: “You’ve opened up my eyes to the true meaning of these verses! It’s only with a man like you that I can discuss the Book of Songs!”

Even the greatest ideas are useless without the right foundation to implement them on. You can’t build an awesome new product, for example, without getting investment to fund the project, designers and engineers to develop it, a factory to manufacture it, and marketing and sales people to promote it.

By all means encourage creativity in your organization, but don’t expect it to sparkle without the right resource, processes, and culture to support it.


This article features a translation of Chapter 8 of Book 3 of the Analects of Confucius. You can read my full translation of Book 3 here.

(1) Confucius and his disciple Zixia are engaging in similar poetic banter as the exchange between the sage and Zigong in Chapter 12 of Book 1 of the Analects. On this occasion, Zixia recites two verses from Poem 57 of the Book of Songs and adds a third one that cannot be found in the collection. By asking whether “ritual is also something that comes afterwards”, Zixia is showing that he understands the point of Confucius’s remark that “painting comes after plain white silk”: namely that ritual needs to be based on strong fundamental values for it to be effective.

I took this image at the Temple of Confucius in Beijing. You can read more about it here.

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