Management by Hard Liquor

A description of the administrative methods of the Han Dynasty chancellor Cao Shen

Day and night he drank strong liquor. Everyone from the aristocratic high officials to his own lowly clerks and retainers saw that Shen did not carry out his. duties. Everyone who came wanted to speak with him about it, but when they arrived Shen always offered them a cup of strong liquor. When, after a short while, they said they had something to say, he offered them more. Only once they were drunk did they leave, having spent the whole time unable to bring up the subject.” 日夜飲醇酒。卿大夫已下吏及賓客見參不事事,來者皆欲有言。至者,參輒飲以醇酒,閒之,欲有所言,復飲之,醉而後去,終莫得開說為常

This is a nice illustration1 of Early Han ideas of government by non-action (無為). It is a nice story one because it makes it easy to tell if students have done their reading. (Class, does anyone remember the story about Cao Shen?) It is also about the ultimate example of how a bureaucratic government should work. As Cao Shen put it. “Since someone who had virtue and was well-respected made
the rules and put the entire kingdom in such a good shape, if we just follow the rules and do not alter the principles, then the kingdom is easy to manage and everyone can relax and enjoy life.” The only people who can goof it up are the busybodies who keep messing with things. Fortunately a bottle in the filing cabinet can deal with them.

  1. from Csikszentmihalyi, Mark. Readings in Han Chinese Thought. Hackett Publishing Company, 2006.

1 Comment

  1. For a moment I thought you were going to give us a Chinese parallel to the Persian tradition — as related by Herodotus, so it’s not exactly reliable — of reconsidering all decisions made while drunk in the light of sobriety and all decisions made while sober in the shade of drunkenness.

    After a while, I suspect that Cao Shen’s underlings stopped trying to tell him stuff and just came for the liquor.

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