Calligraphy teaches Chinese bankers strategy

BEIJING (Reuters) - Is managing a bank in China complicated? No more so than executing a fine work of calligraphy.

Tang Shuangning, president of Everbright Bank, stands in front of his calligraphy at an exhibition in Beijing May 11, 2008. REUTERS/Simon Rabinovitch

That, at least, is the opinion of Tang Shuangning, president of Everbright Bank, a fast-growing lender that recently applied for a stock market listing.

“Approaching a piece of white paper to write calligraphy is like mapping out a strategy in China’s economy,” Tang said in an interview. “The lines of your writing are where you want to lead the money flow. And it all depends on how you make use of your potential power.”

Tang is not the only elite Chinese financier to have a passion for the arts.

Xiang Junbo, president of the Agricultural Bank of China, has written screenplays.

Wang Yi, vice-president of the China Development Bank, which owns 3 percent of Barclays, has received praise for music compositions, though that has not stopped authorities from investigating his role in trading irregularities.

“For successful people at that level, it’s very fashionable to talk about Chinese poetry and traditions,” Jia Lin Xie, a professor at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management.

“You can show deep down that, apart from your business success, you are deeply involved in Chinese culture,” she said.

It is more than mere pretence. The importance that Tang, for one, places on art was evident earlier this year.

In a smoky hotel room in Beijing’s old imperial centre, he gathered together a small group of top officials and scholars. They talked in hushed tones. Everbright Bank was soon to apply for its initial public offering, a contentious move given the country’s rocky market conditions.

For now, though, the assembled few discussed a more pressing topic: Tang’s calligraphy, of course. One after the other, over the course of four hours, they admired, praised and critiqued his handiwork, the swirling black brush strokes on white scrolls.

“I’d never heard of, let alone met, a high-level banker who practices calligraphy of this skill,” said Yu Hui, a researcher at the Palace Museum in Beijing.

“Financial work is not always smooth in China. There are risks. Tang is here today because he has survived those risks, much like artists must confront and surmount risks,” he said.


That businessmen want to prove their artistic bona fides is part of a deeper trend of Confucian beliefs reasserting themselves in China.

Confucius is said to have lived between 551 BC and 479 BC, and his teachings became ruling doctrine for China’s emperors.

But after 1949, the revolutionary communists, hostile to old ways, dismissed Confucius as “reactionary” and tried to stamp out his influence.

In recent years, Confucianism has experienced something of a revival as the government has changed its tune, welcoming the philosophy of obedience to authority. A sign of that turnaround came with the reintroduction of an ancestor worship festival on the Chinese calendar this year.

One Confucian ideal, though, sits very awkwardly with China’s booming economy. Confucius decried self-interested behavior and, in so doing, made profit-seeking business appear crass and undesirable to Chinese through the centuries.

“For about 2000 years, people used to look down on business people and that’s very deep-rooted,” Xie said.

“So you want people to know that you’re a Confucian-style businessman,” Xie said. “That’s not the same as an ordinary businessman, because you’re a businessman with culture.”

The bespectacled Tang, who previously was vice chair of China’s banking regulatory commission, can speak fluidly about the country’s financial reforms, its handling of non-performing loans or the impact of the global credit crisis.

But a reporter who asks him a pointed question about Everbright’s IPO plans is more likely to hear about his forays with the ink brush or to get a nugget from his broader erudition.

He has penned poetry, written a short biography of Zhou Enlai, Mao Zedong’s faithful premier, and made pilgrimages to the towns of ancient poets Li Bai and Su Dongpo.

“Banking is very precise, very logical. But things are best seen in a broader context,” Tang said.


The distaste for money talk also filters into business relations between Chinese and foreigners, a potentially uncomfortable point for Westerners who are used to talking through deals in detail.

Gervais Lavoie, a Canadian businessman who has run companies in China for more than two decades, said meeting face-to-face with his Chinese counterparts is essential but that they are more likely to debate philosophical issues than negotiate contracts.

“We barely talk business,” said Lavoie, who now owns the China franchise for bodycare company Fruit & Passion. “It’s like, why do you want to lose your time talking about business?”

Yet for every calligrapher-cum-banker such as Tang, there are dozens more entrepreneurs whose highest art form is karaoke.

Many business people in China grew up during the chaotic height of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, when traditions were overturned and education was interrupted.

Insecure about their grounding in Chinese heritage, they seek quick fixes, said Jeongwen Chiang, a professor at the Cheung Kong Graduate School of Business in Beijing.

“Some try to elevate themselves to acquire more culture,” he said. “They might participate in artsy events, exhibits or auctions. By amassing some art, they feel they may fill some of that void.”

Cultivating calligraphy and poetry can set the more established business leaders apart from “nouveau rich” newcomers, such as miners or factory owners that have struck it rich.

“For the CEO of a big bank like Everbright, business success is almost a given but they want to establish a name. They want to be different in competing with other banks,” Xie said.

Money, art; strategy, culture; material, sublime - it is a lot for a business leader to master. If Tang’s calligraphy is any indication, the experts think he is up to the task.

Xue Yongnian, a scholar from the Central Academy of Fine Arts, noted that the Everbright chairman’s brush strokes, even within a single character, varied from wide to thin, heavy to light and cautious to carefree.

“Tang takes a huge number of conflicts and unites them in a single work of art,” Xue said. “He makes things harmonious.”

Reporting by Simon Rabinovitch; editing by Megan Goldin