You may be wondering who was Shen Kuo (1031-1095)? Shen Kua as some of the western authors also called him, was a mathematical, scientist, diplomat,astronomer, engineer, inventor a meteorologist, of the like and attributes given to past western geniuses as Nicolaus Copernicus (1473-1543) Leonardo da Vinci (1452-1519) Filippo Brunelleschi (1377-1446). Most importantly, the world attributed the discovery of the difference between true north and the magnetic north to the genius Shen Kuo. He had in his time, a thousand years ago, worked out the mathematical difference with such precision that made navigation then,much more reliable.

Today I would like to share with you an extract of a paper presented, by a very dear friend of mine Dr, Leo and his son, both of them, university academics, at an international HR forum some years ago.

I remembered that I had this document for a while and was reminded of it when, to my great joy I received last week, from the author, the latest publication of Dr.Leo Ann Mean entitled “On Creat!vity Awakening the creative Mind”. I encourage you to get hold of his book to read and I am most grateful to him Dr. Leo.”Brain power is the engine that drives today’s economies” he states in his book.

I quote below the said extract on Shen Kuo for your enjoyment:

A number of common themes may be gleaned from the life and career of Shen Kuo. Researchers such as Sivin and Forage have dealt with factors such as the social, political, intellectual, and even spiritual climate as a means to assist in explaining the phenomenal life he has lead. This paper proposes to deal with the personal attributes of the man himself as a basis for his creativity and achievement. Shen Kuo was a creative individual not primarily due to the circumstances in which he existed but rather due to particular attributes that we too can learn to emulate in the present age.

The eight lessons on improving creativity are not listed in order of importance, as all of them operate concurrently and work together synergistically. From Shen Kuo we may learn lessons on Curiosity, Experience, Perception, Openness, Balance, Cultivation, Fortune and Unity. These lessons are as relevant today as they were during the time of Shen Kuo.

1. Lesson On Curiosity

The first and foremost lesson, a key component to developing creativity, is the trait of curiosity. Shen Kuo had an unquenchable thirst for knowledge. Not only did he traverse his quest for knowledge with a keen desire for more, he also armed himself with the habit of taking notes. It was noted by one researcher that wherever Shen Kuo went, he noted down everything of scientific or technical interest (Ronan, 1978). This habit never left him, as he published various works throughout his lifetime, and his greatest, The Brush Talks From The Dream Creek, was written in his twilight years based on the personal notes and jottings he compiled.

In his curiosity, Shen Kuo was unfettered with intellectual or social tradition. He did not place restrictions on his thinking and reasoning. This was very beneficial, as he found himself able to combine all sorts of insights and understanding, coming up with new ideas and perspectives. Often these innovations were not only beneficial to himself, they were also beneficial to society as he had made it a habit to share his knowledge, especially by way of publishing.

In his wisdom, Shen Kuo realised that alone he could not possibly hope to satisfactorily plumb the depths of knowledge so he always tried to learn from others. Mote (1999) noted that throughout his active life, Shen Kuo was always surrounded by individuals from all walks of life, elite and commoner, with whom he explored all avenues of knowledge.

2. Lesson On Experience

Shen Kuo’s works were markedly different from other literature published during the Song Dynasty. His was remarkably fresh and contemporary. According to Sivin (1995), Shen Kuo’s most characteristic contribution was his emphasis on his own experience. Though he did give credit where it was due and made references to other great works, Shen Kuo’s writings were predominantly based on his own observations, intuition and reasoning. He placed a great premium on discovering facts for himself, witnessing things with his own eyes and reasoning out explanations in his own mind. Only after careful investigation and consideration against his own high standards did he take steps in sharing the knowledge in his publications.

Combined with the necessity of personal experience, is the ability to demonstrate his reasoning and findings. He had a reputation for delivering comprehensive explanations. Whether showcasing his medical methodologies as a boy in 1048, conducting presentations of barrage technology in 1061, or demonstrating the superiority of his newly designed astronomical instruments to the emperor and his host of ministers in 1074, the man was always prepared and thoroughly convincing.

His many breakthroughs in understanding were largely due to his brilliance and curiosity but like a large proportion of historical innovations, they frequently came from juxtaposing insights that did not conventionally fit together. Shen Kuo was able to visualise concepts and often toyed with a multitude of ideas at once. An example of this was his use of physical laws, geographical, chemical and geological knowledge to innovatively dredge the Pien Canal in 1072. Sivin (1995) thought that Shen Kuo was able to do combine multiple concepts from various fields of knowledge due to his remarkable breadth of experience.

3. Lesson On Perception

Shen Kuo was highly appreciative of his senses. Combined with his experience in various matters, he not only trusted his own reasoning and deduction, he was also in tune with the various senses he utilised in his perceptions of the world around him. He thought that his sight, smell, hearing, tasting and touch could be constantly improved and refined to enliven his everyday experiences. Many moments of contemplation would be spent thinking, processing all the sensations his perceptions accorded him.

Shen Kuo was always on the lookout for ways to improve himself, honing not only his mental capabilities but his sensing faculties as well. His involvement in music was an example of this. As Pian (1967) noted, Shen Kuo immersed himself in music such that he wrote much about it, from the origins of many popular pieces of music, playing various musical instruments, singing and writing music, to the technical aspects of instrumental design, audio mechanics and pitch regulation. Further evidence of his desire to improve his senses would be his practise of the Taoist discipline of breath control. He found it highly satisfying in terms of improving his appreciation of the everyday processes of life.

Needham was mentioned by Ronan (1978) that Shen Kuo’s descriptions showed he was a very fine observer. Mote (1999) found that Shen Kuo was very perceptive of natural phenomena. The refinement of his senses to hone his perception had much to do with the way he conducted his daily life. He was never inactive all throughout his lifetime, whether in body or mind.

4. Lesson On Openness

Openness refers to Shen Kuo’s willingness to be open to the discoveries unleashed by his tremendous curiosity, as well as the acceptance of ambiguity and the unknown which his curiosity inevitably led to. Despite the unknowable nature of some of his ponderings, such as the supernatural, Shen Kuo thrived in the face of it all. Given the scientific mind of the man, just looking broadly at Shen Kuo’s life it would seem strange that he was so open to that which logic and science would deny. However, this was a hallmark of his genius, as his openness was an integral support to his great curiosity.

There would be times that Shen Kuo made a discovery or noted something of interest, that seemed a paradox or a mystery. He noted his thoughts and observations of the matter, and pondered upon them, yet did not deny or cast them aside as foolishness. He did not view the ambiguities and paradoxes of his understanding as problematic. As Sivin (1995) noted he did not view his enthusiasms with fate and divination as in conflict with his scientific knowledge. Looking through the two lenses of openness and curiosity however, it comes as no surprise. Shen Kuo believed that being able to thrive in the midst of ambiguity and uncertainty was very important, especially with regard to mental undertakings.

5. Lesson On Balance

Nobel prize-winning researcher Roger Sperry popularised the terms left-brained and right-brained with his discovery that the left hemisphere of the cerebral cortex processes logical, analytical thinking while the right hemisphere processes imaginative, creative thinking. Shen Kuo excelled in both, being a whole-brained thinker not only famous for his left-brained achievements in the sciences but also his right-brained achievements in the arts. In actuality he combined both, as exemplified by his astronomical treatises that combined intricate mathematics and exceptionally imaginative visualisation. Shen Kuo balanced science and art, logic and imagination.

In the sciences and the arts, Shen Kuo excelled in his mastery of both, not only gaining recognition for his treatises on scientific topics such as mathematics, physics and biology, but also for his treatises on the arts such as calligraphy, music and poetry. His Brush Talks illustrates this, as it features an abundance of both scientific as well as artistic information.,

Logic and imagination were equally important to Shen Kuo, as most of his work featured both intertwined. They can also be seen separately with his logically oriented writings in the sciences and his imaginatively oriented writings in the arts. While his writings showed an keen sense of logic, they also portrayed an extraordinary imagination.

6. Lesson On Cultivation

Cultivation in this lesson refers to the idea of continuous improvement, the nurturing of all positive aspects of life. Shen Kuo was a cultivated man, not just in taste and manners, but in his habits of constantly improving himself. Ever since childhood, Shen Kuo lived the belief that cultivation, the constant improvement of the positive aspects of his life, was not only possible but a necessity for living life to the full.

A number of examples from his life illustrate Shen Kuo’s adherence to his habit of cultivation. In terms of his mental faculties the man never ended his education. He believed that the intellect was infinite and therefore infinitely able to be improved. Shen Kuo cultivated his physical attributes in various ways all his life, from military training and techniques to breath control and meditation. He cultivated his senses by practising calligraphy, painting, music, poetry and taking time out in the quiet serenity of China’s beautiful and varied environment. Shen Kuo cultivated the social aspects of his life by mixing with as many people as possible. Even in religious beliefs, Shen Kuo cultivated the various aspects of religion available to him at the time, be it Confucianism, Taoism, or Buddhism.

Shen Kuo’s cultivation was a very important part of his life and career, as in his undertakings Forage (1991) noted that Shen Kuo attended to his work tirelessly. No doubt the reason he was able to do such a thing was the result of the constant improvements he had made throughout his lifetime in helping sustain his thoughtful yet busy lifestyle.

7. Lesson On Fortune

Fortune in this lesson relates to the quality of maximising available opportunities. Shen Kuo knew how to recognise the available opportunities and make full use of the situations at hand. As Sivin (1995) noted, Shen Kuo had to rely on his striving and the full use of his talents, unlike his colleagues who came from the ancient great clans and could afford a life of leisure and luxury. Shen Kuo’s family was representative of a new class of small land-owning families from southeast China with several members of his family occupying important positions in government.

Shen Kuo travelled with his father to successive official posts in various parts of China. Thus as Sivin (1995) noted, from an early age he was exposed to the geographical diversity of China in addition to the broad range of technical and managerial problems in public works, finance, agriculture and waterway maintenance. Forage (1991) added that Shen Kuo may have also been influenced by the variety of new and cosmopolitan ideas in the international harbours such as Quanzhou. Shen Kuo also took the opportunity to study the military writings of his maternal uncle Xu Dong (976-1015), the author of the Huqian Jing. Thus even as a young lad, he made full use of the opportunities available to him. The rest of his life featured similarly wise choices of making his own fortune by grasping the threads of available opportunities.

In a later stage of his career, when Shen Kuo was appointed to the imperial library, he helped himself to the vast resources of knowledge in one of the largest libraries of all time (Forage,1991). A lifetime of records and evaluations, juxtaposed with ideas across the fields of knowledge and experience resulted in Shen Kuo’s many innovations and documented discoveries.

8. Lesson On Unity

In this eighth lesson of creativity, unity refers to the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. It is thinking in terms of the systems within systems encompassing every facet of existence. Shen Kuo thought this way and indeed thrived on not only the quest for understanding, but also knowing how everything was connected. He knew that mankind was not the only thing that mattered in the universe and that there was much more to the existential equation. Forage (1991) noted that Shen Kuo, being a realist believed that man is an active agent who can bring about positive change through investigation or intuition.

Shen Kuo believed in a universal system of knowledge which united intellection, imagination and intuition (Sivin, 1995). Forage (1991) adds that to Shen Kuo, the unity of experience did not require the discrete categorisation of intellectual activity. He did not confuse introspection and observation, drew no lines between them and did not even need to compare the importance of those two ways of knowing.

Thinking in terms of unity helped unleash his creative potential by providing a viable mental map for concepts across the fields of Shen Kuo’s understanding about various areas of knowledge. Acknowledging the interconnectedness of every phenomenon meant the validation of that observation as an intellectual construct able to be mentally manipulated and pondered upon in relation to other constructs. This juxtaposition was a precursor for historical innovations, of which Shen Kuo has been accredited many.


How can the lessons be applied in the world of business today? The rest of this paper attempts to sum up the findings obtained from studying the life and career of Shen Kuo by summarizing and indicating the relevance of each of the eight creative lessons for Chinese entrepreneurship towards global growth and prosperity.

1. Curiosity

The key point of the Curiosity lesson is to never stop wondering and asking “why?”. To assist in the journey of questioning, it is worth developing the habit of taking notes as a practical means of tracking thoughts and fleshing out details. In taking mental flights of fancy, past mental chains of tradition or taboo may be broken especially if they prevent progress. Today’s managers and leaders need to share the journey of curiosity to increase the potential for growth and discovery. Curiosity opens more doors to better management skills and practices.

2. Experience

The lesson on Experience encompasses the measures of testing knowledge through experience, being able to demonstrate understandings, combining insights across disciplines under the unity of experience, and finally utilising the experience of others in providing unique insights. Present day managers and leaders have an advantage here as they have a wealth of experience accumulated over the years by their predecessors as well as a rich pool of human capital to depend on. The desire to gather more experience in various fields must be pursued.

3. Perception

Perception involves the use the senses of sight, smell, hearing, tasting and touch. These senses assist in enlivening everyday experiences and inspiring creativity thus the lessons here would be to refine the senses, look deeper – not being satisfied with an object’s face value, and finally to gain multiple perspectives in perception. Through a continued process of self development, managers and leaders will be able to heighten their senses and become even better in managing and growing their business enterprises, public institutions or professional practices.

4. Openness

Openness refers to a willingness to be exposed to the unknown and being able to operate amidst change and uncertainty. The lesson involves the embracing of ambiguity, being open to possibilities and developing confusion endurance to increase the level of creativity. This lesson is crucial in the context of a fast changing world. Managers and leaders of today, more than at any other time, have to have an open mind, to take risk and to grab opportunities when they arise. This is especially true in an age that is undergoing rapid political, economic, social and technological changes.

5. Balance

Balance is about the idea of pursuing a harmonious arrangement of life elements. It entails obtaining a broad holistic education and learning and not succumbing to self-imposed restrictions; pursuing whole-brained thinking while combining logic and imagination, and finally to practice moderation and maintaining psychophysical equilibrium. Balance is essential for a manager or leader to survive or thrive in a world that is full of uncertainties and changing constantly. Managers and leaders cannot be efficient and effective unless they have balance in their professional and personal lives.

6. Cultivation

Cultivation speaks of continuous improvement and the nurturing of life’s positive aspects. The lesson involves taking time and effort for personal development, making ample preparations for the rigours of everyday living and lastly to banish the mental limitations of performance and enhancement. Captains of industry and managers need to constantly prepare themselves to compete in the era of the K-economy by consciously cultivating themselves to be better entrepreneurs and leaders.

7. Fortune

Fortune pertains to the quality of maximising opportunities. This lesson entails the looking out for opportunities, maximising time, giving credit where it is due (integrity counts) and respecting achievement. In the context of business in the third millennium this lesson is vital for there are ample oportunities that will come the way of Chinese entrepreneurs in the global economy. Creative managers and leaders will grab the opportunities arising from the globalization and liberalization of world trade.

8. Unity

The final lesson, on Unity, refers to the interconnectedness of all things and phenomena. It involves the measures of thinking big-picture in observing systems within systems, understanding that everything has its place, and finally realising that something must first be recognised for it to be utilised. Ultimately it is unity that brings everything together for a prosperous and successful worldwide human enterprise combining the commercial with the political, social and cultural aspects of mankind. Today’s managers and leaders need to be fully aware of the total environment in which they operate.


The eight lessons are not in order of priority or importance. They work together and simultaneously, as in the life of Shen Kuo. These lessons are workable by anyone desiring to emulate the creativity, energy and zest for life that the man possessed and displayed. Shen Kuo was a universal genius, an able statesman and an accomplished human being. Managers and leaders all over the world today can learn a great deal to enhance their performance by learning the lessons from China’s eminent all-rounder who lived a millennium ago.

1 comment so far ↓

#1 joseph on 10.26.06 at 10:59 am

I reproduce here an email sent by a reader who accompanied her mail with a very interesting paper and well written analysis, she wrote on”Underachievement In Our Schools”. Many thanks..
As I favour knowledge for the advancement of all,I allow any one to reproduce my blogs when it is put to noble and good use with or without acknowledgement of its source.Imai san, the Gemba Kaizen Japanese Guru once told me you may copy any of the concepts that I teach provided you put it to good use for the progress of mankind and provided you continously improve(kaizen) on it.

Dear Mr Yiptong

I am writing this mail to let you know how much I enjoy reading your blogs and how much I am learning from them.

Your blog on creative lessons is very interesting. I wish people not just those who know you and like you but the vast majority read it and learn how to encourage it. At least the school system as I understand does not make any special provisions to identify and nurture it. Did you read my article on Underachievement? I am attaching a copy of it.

Well, I must confess that I did not know all the reasons for celebrating Diwali. Thanks.

You are right that the choice is mine. Finally it is the individual who decides what he wants to do with his life. Nevertheless, we need to provide the right conditions to help him develop his potential. This is where we are lacking.

The problems can be solved at least to some extent if we start questioning ‘what for?’ as you wrote in your blog. We never question our practices or evaluate the consequences of our past actions.

Best regards

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