The FortuneCookie 500

Why business execs love to quote Chinese proverbs.

I just returned from hardship duty at the Aspen Institute/Fortune Brainstorm, an annual conference that brings together CEOs, venture capitalists, policy wonks, elected officials, movie stars (Glenn Close!), and freeloading journalists for two days of earnest discussion on important issues. The highlight was overhearing William Morris Chairman Jim Wiatt tell former Disney CEO Michael Eisner that Superman Returns opened big! The lowlight was watching in horror as former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor was pulled aside by the Transportation Security Administration staffers at the Aspen Airport for extra scrutiny.

Recurring themes included alternative energy, the pervasiveness of the Internet, and the impact of India and China—especially China—on the world’s economy. China’s influence was especially apparent in the language used throughout the conference. At a panel on alternative energy, Lawrence Bender, a producer of An Inconvenient Truth,opened his spiel with a Chinese proverb: “When the wind rises, some people build walls. Others build windmills.” Panelist David Hawkins, a lawyerat the Natural Resources Defense Council, countered with another Chinese proverb: “When is the best time to plant a tree? A hundred years ago. When is the second-best time to plant a tree? Yesterday.” (The exchange occasioned much sage nodding of heads.) At another panel, an executive explained the reluctance of Western firms to engage in aggressive public relations in the new market by noting, “In China, they say tall flowers are cut down.”

Type A types are invoking Chinese proverbs far beyond the rarefied air of Aspen. It’s hard to get through any mass gathering these days—an annual meeting, a corporate offsite, a nursery-school graduation—without being exposed to some timeless wisdom from the Middle Kingdom, such as: “As the Chinese blessing/curse goes, ‘May you live in interesting times.’ ” Many a conference call or CNBC interview begins—especially when the company has screwed up royally—with a variant on the chestnut that “in Chinese, the character for crisis is the same as the character for opportunity.”

Why are businesspeople so enamored of Chinese quotations? And is there some secret little red book of proverbs that CEOs pass around in samizdat form at Bohemian Grove or Augusta National?

There are several reasons for the executive class’s linguistic Chinoiserie.

Just as China is an untapped market for American consumer-product companies, it’s an untapped resource for American purveyors of business inspiration. In the 1990s and the early part of this decade, books like Sun Tzu: The Art of War for Managers and Sun Tzu and the Art of Business did well. The latter helped create an ongoing franchise for its author Mark McNeilly to explain the works of the Chinese writer to American middle managers.

Today, many executives quote Sun Tzu and Lao Tzu for the same reason they started exchanging their bespoke suits for business-casual khakis: They have to show that they’re with it. China represents the future and is the locus of immense growth. Casually tossing Chinese proverbs into conversation shows that you’re down with the latest trends, even if you haven’t (yet) relocated your manufacturing capacity to Shenzhen.

The aphorisms lend a rational, easily understandable grace note to even the most complex or boring PowerPoint presentations. The challenge of any corporate wordsmith is to come up with new and interesting ways to express the same old ideas about strategy and performance. (Just try coming up with 20 different ways to say, “We want to sell more of our widgets at higher prices.”) To a large degree, Chinese proverbs are simply understandable and relatively fresh ways of expressing ideas. The bit about the second-best time to plant a tree sounds a lot like “there’s no time like the present” to me. And the line about windmills is nothing more than a reimagination of a phrase favored by Tammy Faye Baker: When life hands you a lemon, make lemonade.

Finally, these are contentious times. CEOs are frequently embattled in the public sphere and forced to defend their compensation, strategy, and policies. It’s always nice when you can locate self-justifying bromides in timeless classics. Remember the highly successful attempt to locate support for the narcissistic pursuit of wealth in the Bible? Well, there’s something in the canon of Chinese proverbs, aphorisms, and philosophical writings for everyone. Who better summed up the argument against the welfare state than Lao Tzu, the father of Taoism: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach him how to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.”

Of course, Westerners frequently get it wrong when they try to translate Chinese homilies for their audiences. (Unlike most of our manufactured products, the “interesting times” proverb may not be of Chinese origin.) And as David Li, a Harvard-trained economist who teaches at Beijing’s Tsinghua University, told me, it’s more accurate to say that the Chinese word for crisis is actually two characters, and opportunity is one of them. (University of Pennsylvania Chinese expert Victor Mair rubbishes the whole idea here.)

In Aspen, there was one session that was entirely free of Chinese proverbs: a panel at which Chinese, Japanese, and Western experts talked about China’s economy and global imbalances. When I asked David Li if Chinese businesspeople use Chinese proverbs at meetings, he chuckled. “No. If they did it too much, it would seem like a cliché.”