When you conceal your will from others, that is Thick.
When you impose your will on others, that is Black.
– Li Zongwu
In the West, Machiavelli’s book The Prince is probably the best known work on simulation and dissimulation. In Chinese culture however there is a rich and deep seam of literature on strategy and deception. Sun Zi’s Art of War is the most famous, but the more recent book, Thick Black Theory (厚黑学 – Hòuhēixué), written by Li Zongwu (李宗吾) in 1912, is possibly the most important when it comes to trying to understand the Chinese strategies of today.
Li Zongwu was a social philosopher and critic and his purpose in writing Thick Black Theory was to describe the symptoms of an illness, or, to be more precise, to bring into the light the cultural shadow which is known to all in Chinese society as “thick face, black heart.”
The description “thick face, black heart” is used to describe what many, but by no means all, in Chinese society, whether they say so publicly or not, perceive to be the “must have” quality of Chinese people if they want to be successful, whether that be in society, business or politics.
“Thick face” is in essence a shield to protect a person from the criticism and negative opinions of others, thus preserving and thickening their own “face,” both in their own eyes and in the eyes of others, by refusing to accept the limitations or criticism that others have tried to impose or force upon them.
“Black heart” is the sword used to do battle with others as well as oneself. The black-hearted practitioner focuses their attention purely on their goals and ignores the possible cost to themselves or others. Together with this well-deﬁned and honed killer instinct, the cutting edge of a practitioner’s sword is dispassion – to do battle without or, in spite of fear, and to be able to detach themselves completely from their own and others’ emotions so that their presence does not thwart or hinder them from achieving their ultimate goals.
In Thick Black Theory, the methods by which people use the idea of “thick face, black heart” to obtain and hold on to money, status and power, and how they use these to preserve their position and accumulate more are described in detail.
Li Zongwu’s original intention was to publish Thick Black Theory in a series of three articles in The Chengdu Daily in 1912. However, the official outrage and violent reaction caused after the ﬁrst article was published led to a cancellation of the series. This series of three articles was later published several times between 1934 and 1936 in a single volume in Beijing by friends of Li Zongwu. Despite the controversial image of Chinese society that it portrayed, each edition sold out immediately before being banned by the government – a deliciously ironic fact given that in 1989; when the ban on the book was lifted, it was published by the Central Party School in Beijing. The book is now a consistent bestseller throughout mainland China, has been published in multiple editions and has spawned a whole sub-genre of “self-help” books, as well as in-depth studies of historical events and characters following the “thick black” premise.
It is important to remember that Li Zongwu’s work is purely an observation and study of “thick face, black heart,” and was never intended to be an endorsement of the amoral practices when mastered (which many non-practitioners would consider to be immoral) that the book describes. The irony that it is now used and reinterpreted as a manual for succeeding in business and society, only goes to show how prescient these observations were, both then and now, and how little has actually changed.