‘Thick Face, Black Heart’ (Book Review & Summary)

Photo: Jonas Svidras @ STEP.CAMERA

Thick Face, Black Heart is more than just another self-help or business book.

Subtitled ‘The Asian Path to Thriving, Winning and Succeeding’, Chin-Ning Chu’s best-selling book shows how ancient Eastern philosophy and mindsets can help us succeed in the world.

The key? Finding our dharma and having the courage, fire and determination to fulfil our destiny no matter what.

This is a pretty badass book. It deftly combines the spiritual and the practical in a way I found highly illuminating. In truth, both are two sides of the same coin. As Chu says, “in the eyes of the Oriental, there are no divisions between business, the art of war, philosophy and spirituality.”

We attain success in life by cultivating our warrior spirit and dedicating ourselves to a life-affirming vision; an expression of our own unique nature.

The central concept borrows from Thick Black Theory, a philosophical text created by Li Zhong Wu, a Chinese politician and scholar at the tail end of the Qing dynasty.

Thick Black Theory was nothing if not controversial. More than a tad Machiavellian, it was soon banned in its native land. The route to success, Li believed, is to conceal your intent from others and then ruthlessly impose your will on others.

Knowing this, I approached Thick Face, Black Heart with a little trepidation.

Chu’s genius, however, is in taking this ethically dubious philosophy and adding another key element into the mix. That element is dharma, meaning duty or right action. An acknowledgement of dharma is something that’s missing from virtually all self-help books. It’s a glaring omission because until we know and follow our dharma, anything other than momentary happiness is impossible. More on that in a moment.

Defining Thick Face, Black Heart

In 1949, when the author was only three years old, her parents fled their native China to escape persecution from the Communist government. Overnight, they went from a life of wealth and privilege to being penniless refugees in Taiwan. It was from this background that Chu flew to the USA when she was in her early twenties, determined to start a new life.

Inspired by Eastern philosophy and determined to use it to help her succeed in her new life, Chu pioneered what she calls Thick Face, Black Heart. It’s based on the principle of Thick Black Theory, with some key modifications.

Chu explains:

Thick Face, Black Heart describes the secret law of nature that governs successful behaviour in every aspect of life. The American pioneers had it. Asian businessmen use it. From ancient times to the present, all successful people utilise the secret.

Being true to the law of nature in our daily encounters fulfills the highest potential within and around us, leading us to the proper unfolding of our destiny. Through [its] utilisation, each one of us will discover the destiny to which we must be true.

She’s adamant that success should never be measured by external means such as status, material wealth or possessions. A successful life is one lived by following our own unique path and not by attempting to fulfil the dreams and expectations of others.

The Shield and Spear

Thick Face, Black Heart is a mindset and an approach to life.

Thick Face relates to the Asian concept of ‘face’, which relates to how others think about us. To have a ‘thick face’ is the same as the Western metaphor of having a ‘thick skin’.

“Thick Face,” Chu writes, is “a shield to protect our self-esteem from the bad opinion of others. A person adept at Thick Face creates his own positive self-image despite the criticism of others.”

Thick Face enables us to set aside self-doubt and reject the limitations others try to impose on us. We no longer look to others for our validation, self-worth and confidence. Instead, it’s up to us to create a strong sense of our own worth.

If Thick Face is the shield, Black Heart is the spear.

Black Heart is the determination to act on our convictions regardless of how others might respond. This implies a certain ruthlessness, but it’s actually courageous to do what we know is right regardless of the potential criticism and ridicule of others.

It’s a mindset that, according to Chu, “allows one to effectively cut through the ignorant and preconceived ideas of the masses.”

In marshalling our warrior spirit, we learn to overcome fear, master detachment and to question all the assumptions and values conditioned into us by society. Thick Face, Black Heart shows us how to break free of the constraints of external standards and to search for our own values and vision through self-inquiry and self-knowledge.

The Importance of Dharma

What I especially love about this book is that it presents the concept of dharma in a clear and understandable way. Without dharma, Thick Face, Black Heart could easily be dismissed as a tool for narcissists and sociopaths to justify all kinds of reprehensible actions.

Chu, however, stresses the importance of understanding and following dharma.

‘Dharma’ comes from the Sanksrit root words dhar, meaning “to support, uphold and nourish”. It means right action or duty.

All beings have their own dharma and all situations and circumstances have a specific dharma. Dharma isn’t determined by the mind, nor is it some man-made ideal. It’s already there — inbuilt — as part of the ‘factory settings’ of the universe. The choice is simply whether we adhere to it or not.

To live in alignment with dharma is to be in harmony with the Tao; with the natural flow of the universe and our own essential nature. In any given situation, it pays to be aware of what our dharma is (ie, what the appropriate action might be) and to use the mindset of Thick Face, Black Heart to actualise that dharma.

The Battle of Life

Chu is clear that life is very much a battle. It’s certainly no picnic. But, as she notes:

Nature equips a bee with everything it needs to fulfil its intended destiny. In the same way, our Maker has provided us with everything we need to achieve our highest potential.

There’s a wonderful chapter on endurance, and having the courage to keep on going in spite of life’s inevitable setbacks, failures and defeats.

She suggests we live our lives as if we are already where we want to be, and to stay rooted in a mindset of abundance and success. She advises us to find and follow our own natural flow and rhythm.

Another key principle is that of detachment, which is something that doesn’t come easily to many of us. Detachment is the ability to pursue a path but not be consumed by it; and to recognise that while we can do our very best, the results are never up to us. This is the essence of karma yoga, as taught in the Bhagavad Gita, which is referenced throughout the book. It allows us to be fully engaged in our work while free of the anxiety and stress brought about by excessive attachment to the results.

There’s a wealth of other practical and inspiring advice. While I found later chapters of the book lacked the life-changing impact of the opening, it explores a number of other Asian concepts; each illustrated with some fun stories and analogies.

What I love about this book

I’ve long been fascinated by Eastern philosophy and the ways it can be used to benefit our lives not only spiritually and psychologically, but also on a mundane, practical level.

Thick Face, Black Heart is an absolute gem because it refutes any division between the spiritual and the mundane. Chu provides a blueprint for taking what would otherwise be abstract principles and using them to inspire and guide every facet of life, from work, money, to relationships, sex and health.

I believe the two greatest manuals for living ever written are the Bhagavad Gita and The Tao Te Ching, both of which are amply referenced in this book. What Chu has done is take this timeless wisdom and make it accessible and highly relevant for not only surviving but thriving in our chaotic modern age.

Highly recommended reading.

Check it out on Amazon.

If you’ve already read this book, be sure to let me know what you think!

About Rory 23 Articles

I write, think and dream. Having spent years studying psychology and Eastern philosophy and spirituality, my mission is to share the knowledge, wisdom and tools that have transformed my life. I meditate every day. I adore nature. I’m an introvert by nature but I love people (although animals are trees are way cooler). Blue skies make me high. Cake is my kryptonite.