Marble Boat: culture, leadership, connectivity


In present day difficult times, it is desirable to turn to our past to better understand our present and wisely plan for the future.

In fact, institutions, strategies and plans are not wanting as demonstrated by the Chinese.

In the northwest corner of Kunming Lake, close to the western foot of Longevity Hill, on the grounds of the Summer Palace in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China floats the Marble Boat.


The boat was built in 1755 during the reign of the Qianlong Emperor with a base made from huge stones.

But this is not an ordinary boat. A lot of meaning and value is attached to it. Its design is strong message not only to the Chinese but to the entire word in various undertakings.

Minute by minute, many Chinese nationals visit the Summer Palace to take a look at some artefacts and goings-on in there but, of paramount importance, to get inspired by the boat’s figurative message.


At the back of their minds as they draw closer to the boat is Wei Zheng, renowned for his honest advice and a prominent prime minister under the reign of Emperor Taizhong, Tang Dynasty.

Wei sums up the boat’s message: “Water can carry the boat as well as overturn it.”

Wei means water, symbolising the common people, can support a good emperor or overthrow a bad emperor.

So, Emperor Qianlong had the huge Marble Boat fastened in the water to indicate the steadfast rule of the Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911).

Emperor Qianlong had sense and importance of the governed in mind.

And this is the message that connects the Chinese leadership and the governed today.

Little wonder, China is not just almost the largest economy in the world but a successful nation in sectors such as agriculture and fishing, resources and power, manufacturing, transportation and so forth.

Gross Domestic Product (GDP) in China, for example, was worth $11,199.15 billion in 2016. It is reported the GDP value of China represents 18.06 percent of the world economy.

Contrast this to African economies, Malawi inclusive.

Oxford Poverty & Human Development Initiative’s (OPHI) recently released data and reports drawn from a survey of 103 countries across the world – 39 of them in Africa including Malawi – say one in three Africans is destitute.

The OPHI study led by development economists at Oxford University in the United Kingdom also says two in every three African children –300 million African children – are living in poverty.

The study measures poverty not only by income levels but by 10 indicators in the priority areas of Sustainable Development Goals of health, education and living standards.

The indicators rate poverty by factors such as malnutrition, child mortality, years of schooling, levels of school attendance and access to cooking fuel, sanitation, safe drinking water, electricity, proper flooring and ownership of forms of transport and electrical goods.

“Destitution” is the term the OPHI study gives to the most severe form of poverty.

The poorest of the poor, 282 million people in sub-Saharan Africa are destitute – the highest rate in the world – owing to the above definition.

Greg Mills, a one-time adviser to Rwandan President Paul Kagame, writes in Why Africa is Poor: And What Africans can Do about It about the plight of Africa in the mid of unprecedented amounts of foreign aid.

Mills informs on two of the big problems in Africa: leaders that do not really care about the people but rather their own ways of life and a populace, that even in democratic countries, continue to vote for parties and presidents that are clearly failures.

He argues that the answer to why Africa is poor is simply that its leaders have made this choice.

Precisely, the Big Man mentality that is ubiquitous all over the continent has done Africa’s development a lot of harm.

And a move to permanently relegate to the graveyard mediocrity – with all its associated evils – that has served only to thwart Africans’ reasoned existence cannot come quickly enough if the public continue to remain silent on sticky issues and vote for parties and presidents that do not really care about the people but rather their own ways of life.

Africa lacks the Marble Boat to remind its majority current leadership and to convince subsequent leaderships to treat their true bosses – the general populace that put them in elective office – with genuine reverence, adoration and appreciation.

The continent – despite rich in cultures and traditions – lacked that thing to connect its leadership to the governed; to remind the ruling elite and future leaders that it is this general populace that the county’s leadership needs to be accountable to for the exercise of all public power and whose trust and confidence it must enjoy at all times and convince it that it is not using their public positions for personal gain and avoid any conflict of interests between their private and official undertakings.

Pope Paul VI in an Encyclical letter Populorum Progressio (The Development of People) postulates what it means to govern for the benefit of the populace.

He says: “Development cannot be limited to mere economic growth. In order to be authentic, it must be complete, integral, that is, it has to promote the good of every man and woman and the whole human person. Development is not simply to have more, it is to be more, it is to move from ‘less human conditions’ to conditions that are ‘more human’.”

And it is plain to almost everyone that what Africans have always wanted is a desire that has been burning since the ‘Scramble for Africa’ was formalised at the Berlin Conference in 1884 and erupted into the struggle for liberation from colonialism over half a century ago: freedom of having a say in the way one’s country’s natural resources are used and the way one’s country’s future is shaped.

It is development in the Chinese’s Marble Boat philosophy and Pope Paul VI’s understanding.

George Ayittey elsewhere argues there is a remarkable difference between leaders and rulers. The latter are often associated with all sorts of dictatorial traits. While leaders are consultative and proceed by popular consensus, rulers are absolutes, sultans, some sort of elected monarchs, self-seeking and tend to personalise state power.

While leaders are self-confident, predictable and visionary, rulers lack sense of confidence, they are unpredictable, tend to seek vain glories in titles, are suspicious, very unsure of themselves and their surroundings, bitter, angry and ready to pounce and strive on any imagined enemy.

Unfortunately, the political history of Africa is replete with rulers who are disconnected from the people they intend of pretend to serve.

But the Marble Boat culturally encourages leadership that promotes respect and connectivity, in the process sustainable socio-economic development.

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