Li Chi: "The Changing Concept of The Recluse in Chinese Literature" in Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies, v. 24, 1962-63, p. 234-247.

Li Chi's article is one of the earlier clear presentations of the evolution of reclusion in China from antiquity to the 18th century. The author presents famous recluses and the content and motive of their reclusion as historical data, not merely literary -- though poetry and painting are vehicles used by recluses of various types. The ideal of reclusion, says Li Chi, "never ceased to haunt the mind of the Chinese literatus and to monopolize much of the spirit of Chinese poetry."

Unique in history and indigenous to China, the figure of the recluse appeared at the dawn of Chinese history alongside the more typical warrior figure or man of action celebrated by legend. This early appearance, Li Chi asserts, is a significance that cannot be underestimated in the formation of Chinese culture, reflecting the dualism later characterizing Chinese society, and Chinese literature in the dualism of prose (action) and poetry (reclusion).

The author begins with the famous princely brothers of Ku-chi, Po-i and Shu-ch'i, who refused the corruption of rule and reclused to Shou-yang Mountain, where they starved to death. The last line of a poem attributed to them laments: "Alas, we depart this world; the times are hopelessly decadent." Thus, the earliest reclusion expressed not only non-conformity and defiance of worldly values, but also renunciation of the world of action. Confucius held the story (or legend) as a model of virtue, and historian Ssu-ma Chi'en dutifully included the brothers in his biographies of great figures.

Other ancient recluses include Hsu Yu (who washed out his ears in a brook upon hearing that a throne was proffered to him), Chieh Chih-tu'i, who quit service under Duke Wen of Chin and died in a fire set by the duke to drive him out of his forest retreat and back to service. These three instances of withdrawal reflect the equivalent of martyrdom.

This radical notion of reclusion could not last.

By the time of Confucius reclusion had been formulated into a concept and the process of sophistication had begun. ... The concept of the recluse had begun to change from a man who had renounced the world and had hidden himself in the wilderness to one who kept himself apart from the world of affairs and yet was anxious to make himself heard.

These types of recluses are evidenced in the later Confucius, where they appear as skeptics willing to be known versus seeking to hide. This degree of openness was a challenge to Confucius, whose sympathies fell towards reclusion in his own growing dissatisfaction with efforts at ethical reform in  society. The martyrdom of the earliest recluses seemed excessive, yet Confucius himself wrestled unsuccessfully with the conundrum of how to maintain moral integrity in service and society without courting death. His contemporaries, forerunners of Taoists, address this problem.

Chuang-tzu presents Taoism as a break from the arrogance of past recluses. Chuang-tzu disdains choosing death or hiding in the mountains, and offers the alternative of being a hermit in the world, buried among the people. Such a one is not "motivated by desire for fame or by love of indolence" and constitutes what the author calls the yin of reclusion. The famous poem "Summons to the Recluse" of Chu-tzu describes the horrors of mountain and forest wilderness -- tigers, leopards, bears, monkeys, treacherous ravines, ending with the poet's plaintive: "O prince, return! In the mountains you cannot stay long." The poem exemplifies the point of view that reclusion of this sort was hardship and danger.

The Warring States era (475-221 B.C.E.) brought destruction and poverty to many areas of China. These conditions are the context of Taoist advice about reclusion among people and not alone. This memory extended centuries later to Tao Chi'en's famous "Peach Blossom Spring," a story describing an ideal community, a lost world inaccessible to the unworthy curious and to stray travelers. Such communities may well have existed in this era, when villagers would have had to conceal themselves and cooperate closely to protect themselves.

A further change of reclusion "from a show of defiance to a search for refuge" was the renewed interest in the I Ching or Book of Changes, originally a book of divination but slowly transformed into a source of sagacious advice. Renewed interest in the work was prompted by the ascendancy of Taoism over Confucianism. Political and ethical justification for reclusion gave way to philosophical reclusion and the crafting of a way of life.

But as author Li Chi puts it:

With the prestige conferred by a life of retirement came the convention of the recluse being summoned to court. The prototype of such a figure is Chu-ko Liang. ... As the act of retirement changed from a moral necessity to a deliberate choice, the motivation of recluses became more complex and in many cases less sincere.

The author shows how the popular formula of being summoned back to service could reach the level of farce, as rulers sought the kao-shih (high-principled scholar) and the chung-yin (fake recluse). Some rulers even favored the opinions of recluses over their own officials, spurring a movement of low-grade aspirant officials to take a stint as recluses.

At the same time, Neo-Taoists who held no office, and some who did, scorned the artificiality of the retirement-from-service/return-to-service cycle. They insisted that Taoists and not the cycling officials were truly recluses in society, accepting the flow of events and concealing their differences from others. As the 1st-century Taoist Tung-fang So wrote:

I have immersed myself in the vulgar and the profane and found refuge from the world inside the Bronze Horse Gate. At court we can find refuge from the world and keep ourselves whole. Why remote mountains and thatched huts?

Tung-fang So's point of view about reclusion is important enough to quote in full his advice to his son:

For the intelligent fellow, there's nothing like living by the golden mean.
Taking it easy, he merely follows the Way.
Po-i and Shu-ch'i were stupid to starve on Mt. Shou-yang;
Liu-hsia Hui was really smart to keep his equanimity when thrice dismissed from office.
Eat your fill and walk it off.
Better a salaried officer than a clodhopper,
Be a recluse, yet play the man of the world;
We are all out of joint with our times.

Once you have served, you will be endangered;
Jealous of your good name, you will attain glory.
Gregariousness will hurt your life;
Solitary eminence will produce enmity.
Have enough and to spare and you will not suffer want;
Squander and not much will be left.
The way  of the sage is that of the dragon and the snake:
Its shape is apparent but its substance is always hidden;
It fits itself to changing circumstances;
It meets the exigencies of the times and has no fixed abode.

The Neo-Taoist was preoccupied with survival, not in dying for principle. But because one could not accept the world either, the compromise lay in a conscious safeguarding of self while maintaining a non-cooperative spirit. Such a solution was tailored to the intellectual in a difficult era, conceived as neither a self-deception nor a hypocrisy. Tung-fang So coined the phrase "retirement at court" to describe this notion of reclusion within the world.

By the 8th century, Tang poet Po-Chu-i praised this "middle retirement" or yin quite literally:

The great yin is at court or in the city,
The small yin is inside a hillside plot.
But a hillside plot is too solitary a place,
and court and city too turbulent.
Best of all is the middle yin,
Yin in the nominal post of a secretary.

In subsequent centuries, the desire for reclusion was stoked by the fall of the Sung dynasty and rise of foreign occupiers and rulers. By this time Buddhism had long presented a more benign view of nature and wilderness, making solitary reclusion more attractive. The contrast of the times to the dictums of the I Ching and moral standards of Confucius pricked the moral conscience of many intellectuals and led to a revival of reclusion. However, the author does not pursue this angle here except to note Buddhism's positive view of reclusion.

The I Ching served Taoists with a clearer dichotomy of service versus reclusion. Confucian sources preferred  the threefold yin: "the man of great moral force, the man of ability, and the man who takes refuge because he is aware of his shortcomings." But the dilemma of what to do lingered, and the author cites the 18th-century example of Yuan Mei, who retired from government service at the age of 32 to write glowingly of life in reclusion, but who in fact lived in the Nanking suburbs, his hut a mansion. Contemporaries called him a fox and a hypocrite, but only under such a guise could he have been able to extol reclusion at all.

The lament of Ch'ing era poet Li Shih fen reflects the Chinese intellectual's dilemma:

The immortal, the distinguished civil servant, the recluse,
Procrastinating, I have let each slip up to now.

The author rightly summarizes the "dualistic outlook on life" that the Chinese intellectual maintained with regard to service versus reclusion.

The ethical emphasis of the Confucian school failed in the end to satisfy the full demands of the mind, and many an intellectual ... tried to free themselves from the bondage of the moral world and sought to realize a full life in the alternative of Taoist and Buddhist metaphysics.

If the Chinese intellectual could not alter the course of his life, which had long been shaped for him, he could find an outlet for his dreams. ... His career was devoted to carrying out the dictums of Confucianism, by which he fulfilled his duty as a member of society, but the accomplishment of that career was made tolerable by the haunting vision of the recluse and by a delight in nature.