Asia's Three Teachings

Updated: Apr 25, 2020

Confucianism, Buddhism and Taoism are the major religious philosophies in East Asia. Their fundamental principles arguably influence regional management styles and business principles (including M&A).


The three ‘lifestyle religions’ were all established in the sixth century BC relying upon individual awareness and insights rather than deities or external revelations as in Christianity, Judaism or Islam. Confucianism can be seen as regulating the individual-society relationship; Buddhism as the individual-heaven interface; and Taoism as dealing with the individual-nature connection.


The ‘Vinegar Tasters’ is a traditional Chinese image which helps provide some high level background to each of the three Eastern Asian religions. It depicts each of their respective founders in front of a vat of vinegar with a facial expression following the tasting of the substance. To Confucius, the liquid tastes sour: Society has slid into anarchy and demands, amongst other things, that a stronger link to the ancient order and noble values be re-established; To Gauthama Buddha, it tastes bitter, filled with material attachments and desires that lead to suffering, requiring that mankind transcends itself through moderate behavior (the ‘Middle Way’) to reach Nirvana; and to Tao’s Laozi, it tastes pleasantly right, as it could be expected based on the natural order of things (incl. the Yin and Yang complementarity) with which a humble mankind should not interfere. The three religions or ‘Three Teachings’ can be understood as one, i.e. complementary since bringing mankind, nature, society and heaven together.


A paper published in the Journal of Asia-Pacific Business (2007) and entitled Religion and the Shaping of East Asian Management Styles adds a valuable dimension to the three teachings. According to the author, some of the main principles of the three religious philosophies include: Behaviors driven by values more than by laws, a strong reliance on moral and spiritual values including benevolence and compassion (as opposed to negative emotions and desire), measured behavior, mindfulness, emphasis on and commitment to balanced relationships, mutual respect and the non-opposition to natural forces.


The article explains how these principles have a direct influence on business and management style characteristics in East Asia (which I would extend to the handling of M&A transactions):

  • Respect for authority, hierarchies, seniority and titles

  • Tolerance for social inequalities in return for a stable and harmonious society looking after the basic welfare of its citizens

  • Adoption by leaders of a patriarchal approach to management in exchange for employee loyalty

  • Emphasis on group and conformity as opposed to individuals and exceptionalism

  • Reliance by government, corporates and workers on a partnership approach (including corporates amongst themselves)

  • Consensus decision-making (unless a leader possesses some high moral authority)

  • Trust-based relationships (rather than contractual arrangements) as the cornerstone of interpersonal dealings

  • Conflict avoidance

  • Lack of emotions shown during commercial dealings

  • Positive workplace attitude and high work ethics

Capitalism has been shaking the established order in East Asia (e.g. lifetime employment concept). And yet, when considering the fragile nature of the social contract in the West (see ‘1968’ earlier this month), there may be something for the world to be learnt from that region of the world.

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