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Dealing with Wuli Shili Renli:

Zhichang ZHU (PhD?)

So often, and so easily, we tend to reduce rich wholes, that is, systems, into one dimension. In the Chinese context, main-stream traditional culture directed people to primarily focus on ethics and morality, while downplaying science and technology. Nowadays, we face but another reductionist tendency: defining and tackling all situations at hand in terms of merely one sphere, e.g., economics, techniques, or efficiency. The old and the modern, different manifestations, same rationality.

How can we overcome this reductionist tendency in our thinking? How can we act systemically in accordance with principles which we have read in this handbook? How does Chinese thought have something to offer for such desires?

Many people know that ancient Chinese and Eastern thought have valuable harmonious insights for making sense of the complex movement of our world, for example, the exciting idea of the dynamic and interacting relations of Yin and Yang in the Tao Te Ching and Yi Ching, the wonderful teaching of mutual causality of all phenomena in Buddhism, etc. But, besides the useful goal of seeking descriptions, perhaps more important, we have to take action.

Based on the reconstruction of the Neo-Confucianist concept of Li and relevant teachings, and drawing on experiences in the Oriental context, we have consolidated a systems methodology so to improve and popularise systems research and practice. We call it the Wuli Shili Renli approach (WSR). The basic theme of the WSR approach suggests that in conducting projects, ideally we are dealing with a differentiable whole, which can be realised by knowing Wuli, sensing Shili, and caring Renli, that is, to investigate and model objective existence, to reflect and study ways of seeing and doing, and to manage and co-ordinate human relations (see Figure 1). Principally, this requires us to bring all Wu, Shi and Ren elements into our consideration, and accordingly search for appropriate methods to study various lis as well as their dynamic interactions, although certain li(s) may be perceived by participants as more 'crucial', 'major', 'dominant', or 'urgent' than others in some circumstances.

For pedagogical purpose, the WSR approach can be presented as a sequence of processes, namely, understanding desires, investigating conditions, formulating objectives, creating models, co-ordinating relations, and implementing proposals (see Figure 2). Ideally, in dealing with Wuli, Shili and Renli, participants should tailor or design their own procedures and plans according to their understanding and perception of concrete situations.

Several principles are suggested for consideration in order to facilitate knowing Wuli, sensing Shili, and caring Renli. First, pursuing differentiation rather than reduction; second, being open to varying lis, values, interests, rationality, creativity and methodologies; third, reflecting on basic and generally hidden assumptions of various models; forth, searching for possible synthesis and complementation among approaches; and fifth, the WSR methodology should be used flexibly rather than treated as a step-by-step Chinese cookbook.

Is there anything in Eastern and Chinese thought capable of being translated into practical guide-lines by learning from which we can possibly act in a more systemic way? To answer these questions, one way is to look at the Neo-Confucianist concept of Li and relevant teachings.

Li in Neo-Confucianism is a suggestive and wide-reaching concept which has diverse meanings. As a noun it can be used to denote orders, patterns, principles, reasons, etc., while as a verb it means to manage, to engage, to put in order, and so on. In Song-Ming Li Xue (School of Li in the Song and Ming dynasties), it was suggested that different things and events in the universe are governed by different lis, and that we should pursue different ways to study and to follow these varying lis so to make proper responses when confronted with complex phenomena and events. Thus we have Zhu Xi's (1130-1200) saying that 'There is li in everything, and one must investigate lis to their utmost' and Cheng Yi's (1033-1107) teaching that There are many ways of investigating lis to the utmost. One way is to read about and discuss truth and principles. Another way is to talk about the people and events of the past as well as the present, and to distinguish which is right and which is wrong. Still another way is to handle [human] affairs and settle them in the proper way.

According to our experience from systems projects in contemporary China, the above Neo-Confucianist concept of Li and relevant teachings can be reconstructed as the following.

We take action, for example conducting projects, not in vacuum but conditioned by a complexity. This complexity can be viewed as constituted by Wu (objective existence), Shi (affairs and engagements), and Ren (humans with all their objectivity, subjectivity and intersubjectivity). To take proper action, we need to study and follow regularities or patterns that govern or influence Wu, Shi and Ren respectively. We call these regularities and patterns Wuli, Shili, and Renli. These lis are distinguishable and irreducible in the sense that one kind of li cannot be fully understood or properly tackled in terms of another. Accordingly, studying and following different lis, we need different kinds of rationality and methods.

Wu in Chinese means (1) thing, matter; (2) the outside world as distinct from oneself; (3) content, substance. We can use the notion of Wu to cover the whole range of 'facts' in our resources and constrains: natural resources, physical environment, climate, location, population and its structure, transportation, power supply, communication facilities, available financial and human resources, production capacity and outputs, unemployment, pollution, etc., as well as existing formal constitutions, organisations, regulation systems, and so on. In different situations, our actions are conditioned by different combinations of factors in such Wus.

Accordingly, Wuli are those regularities and principles which form and govern these Wus. In studying Wu and Wuli, we are searching for 'positive knowledge' of 'primary facts'. Generally, such knowledge should be testable and falsifiable through empirical methodologies. But how are we to know the objectivity of 'facts' in Wus and the appropriateness of our model of Wuli? This pertains to Shili.

Shi in Chinese means (1) matter, affair, thing, business; (2) trouble, accident; (3) job, work; (4) responsibility, involvement. Accordingly, we can use Shili to denote patterns and orders of events and engagements, as well as the ways we had better follow to see, to model, and to act. In studying Shili, we focus on investigating and understanding how the world can be better modelled and managed. This involves creating, comparing, selecting and reflecting on our definitions and models for specific systems. It concerns our modelling of models.

An example of Shili is information systems development methodologies. Generally, to develop a workable information system, we may employ structural methodologies such as Jackson's, de Marco's, SSADM, etc.; we may follow the principle of prototyping; we may adopt newly-developed approaches which draw on insights from 'soft' systems methodologies; depending upon the particularity we conceive in differently situated development environments. We will most probably choose not to buy hardware first, select software next, build conceptual models afterwards, and investigate user requirements and the system's environment last, because we know from experience that there are patterns of 'good doing' we had better study and follow so to carry out our affairs 'better'.

Shili is important since with good knowledge of Wuli but without knowing Shili we can still turn our projects into messes. Further, according to our experience, our tackling of Wuli and Shili can be effective only when Renli is recognised and tackled properly. In other words, without addressing such issues as 'why use Wuli for this purpose but not for that one?', 'why follow this Shili but not others?', there is no hope of conducting projects smoothly or successfully. With 'good' Wuli and Shili but 'bad' Renli our action might produce hardship rather than improvement.

Simply put, the concept of Ren concerns the human aspect of our actions. Renli denotes to patterns of human behaviour and interaction, effects of encounters among different value systems and interests, as well as ways of investigating and tackling those patterns, effects, and encounters. Renli highlights the importance of human relationships, which in most circumstances determine the fate of our actions. This idea is highly compatible with the Confucianist teaching according to which dealing with social affairs in human relations is the Tao towards Man's full realisation and development.

Particularly, Renli stresses the intersubjective relations among parties concerned by our actions: client, authority, organiser, expert, potential owner, user, operator, beneficiary and loser, the public, etc. In studying and tackling Renli, we focus on generating and fostering possible SYNERGETIC factors, as well as avoiding or overcoming obstructive ones. A key question is: does our action serve the interests of concerned parties and wider communities (and the nonhuman world)? This requires us to convey generally unspoken interests, intentions, motivations and value systems of concerned parties into our design and actions. This goal can be realised through discursive practice. Generally, listening, caring, compromising and co-ordinating are needed. In short, oriented by Renli is to ensure that our actions are serving human (and nonhuman) interests better.

The Wuli Shili Renli approach has been used in China to conduct projects such as water resources management decision support systems, strategy planning, disaster analysis, various evaluations, and knowledge inquiry in some disciplines. It is suggested that it is by no means 'the only feasible and effective way' for systemic actions, yet a trial of it might be justified.

Further readings:

1. Zhu, Zhichang (1996), Dealing with differentiable whole: philosophy of the WSR approach, Systems Practice, in press.

2. Gu, Jifa and Zhichang Zhu (1996), Knowing Wuli, sensing Shili, caring Renli, methodology of the WSR approach, Systems Practice, in press.

3. Zhu, Zhichang (1996), International conversation on the WSR approach: edited e-mails, in the proceedings for the Second British-Chinese-Japanese Conference on Systems Methodologies, May 1996, Japan.

dealing_with_wuli_shili_renli.txt · Last modified: 2020/07/27 15:38 (external edit)