Eremitism in Ancient China, part 1: Confucius

Unlike any other culture or country, China has fostered hermits and eremitism throughout its long history, with legendary and historical accounts, philosophical and religious discussion, artistic and literary presentations, and of course, actual hermits and recluses.

 Since earliest times in China, eremitism was a concern of the most educated and erudite classes, and was integrated into both practical and philosophical teachings of ethics and politics. The legendary figures of the past were given intellectual and moral credence by the most insightful levels of the culture, a phenomenon not seen to such an extent anywhere in the world, where recluses and hermits have been viewed with bemusement and suspicion if not outright scorn. Hence it is essential to a history and understanding of eremitism to study the hermits and recluses of China.

Eremitism anywhere is freely chosen as a moral and intellectual if not social ideal. Properly speaking, it has never be involuntary, coerced, or the product of mental instability. This is especially true in China where a criterion for evaluating true eremitism -- distinguishing recluses, partial recluses, and true hermits -- evolved early, even in preliterate times.

Because only the affluent and educated had the opportunity to pursue reclusion based on moral principle in ancient China, concepts of reclusion were tied directly to political and social factors affecting the moral individual. Renunciation of office, power, and security, undertaken voluntarily, was precisely the proof of integrity that distinguished the solitude of a shaman, peasant, or woodcutter living in a remote mountain or in a far-away village from the reclusion of an an urban and literate official.

This initial observation does not mean that becoming a recluse was merely the pose of a rich man who might have family money to soften the economic blow of quitting a lucrative post in the city. For many, eremitism was an uncushioned blow for the sake of moral principle. For others it was a philosophical liberation for which material simplicity or hardship was not unwelcome. And for still others of modest or poor families, reclusion was the option of an educated but principled individual.


The terminology used to describe hermits and recluses in China affords insight into the origins of eremitism and of what reclusion really consisted. The Western terms for hermit and monk are based on the terms for solitude and aloneness, but the equivalent Chinese terms are more flexible and descriptive, for there are many nuanced ways of pursuing reclusion, and they do not automatically exclude social relations.

The standard Chinese terms for recluses and hermits are yinshi and chushi, where yin means withdrawn or hidden but also reclining, as in the sense of leisure and unemployment. In chushi, chu means to dwell or remain within or to be at rest within.

Historian Alan Berkowitz offers a list of terms used to identify recluses and hermits.

yinshi hidden ones, those in reclusion
yimin disengaged persons
yishi disengaged scholars
yimin (2) overlooked persons
chushi scholars at home
gaoshi high-minded ones
gaoyi lofty and disengaged
gaoyin lofty recluses
youren remote ones
yinshe hidden ones
yin junzi hidden princely ones
yan xve zhi shi men of cliffs and caves
jiadun ke sojourners who prize escape
feidun zhi shi scholars who fly to withdrawal
zhengshi summoned scholars [who declined office]

Thus the practitioners of reclusion were often referred to in oblique terms that accounted for status and motive. These terms underscore the notion in Chinese eremitism that deliberate isolation and physical removal from society were not the main criteria but rather disengagement. This disengagement derived from the potential for withdrawal from political or institutional service. These men did not altogether remove themselves from society but removed themselves from what they considered corrupt and immoral service or circumstances.

The universally shared motivation behind ancient Chinese reclusion was moral principle or "strength of character" as one observer puts it. The emergence of moral principle as chief motive points to the origins of eremitism in Confucius and the image of Confucius.


Before Confucius there are intimations of eremitism in legendary presentations of remote figures as mentioned earlier, but these occupations (shamans, fishers, woodcutters) took their practitioners to remote and solitary places by their very nature and not necessarily because they were recluses or hermits.

Strong clues to incipient eremitism are likewise suggested by the hexagrams of the Book of Changes, though not all observers accept this. Selections from the Book of Songs and the Book of Documents, while hinting at reclusion and retirement, are not unambiguous about the status of retired office-holders victimized by a shift away from heredity and kinship as sole factors in appointment. Rather, the conscious and unambiguous choice for eremitism first appears in ancient China in the works attributed to Confucius.

The idea that office could be refused despite qualifications and ambition, or that office-holders would not feel morally obliged to exercise their talents on behalf of corrupt others, is a radical political and social idea. The notion that anyone of the requisite family, articulate, educated, groomed for public service, should disdain power, prestige, and material comfort is still a concept difficult for most people to understand. Though there was risk and insecurity in severing oneself from a political regime, the alternative was ignominy, banishment and material hardship for those who spoke up. To speak up would have been motivated by either naiveté, foolishness, misjudgment, or high moral purpose, but there was nothing political to be gained by it.

Furthermore, ancient China maintained the belief that the emperor or king held the throne by virtue of the gods, of "heaven," or fate -- much like the divine right concept of the Western world. The concept, much secularized, still dominates the modern world. Confucius proposed that the criterion for holding power (and therefore, for its counterpart of reclusion) should be nothing less than moral worth.

Confucius went further in proposing that, as one source puts it, "it is the moral nature of the individual, properly cultivated and self-regulated, that can be the only source of ethical value and social order." The moral individual, not motivated by ignorance, fear of punishment, or promise of reward, is the necessary foundation for a just society, but also the foundation for a philosophy of eremitism.

The heart of Confucian philosophy resides in the person, not in a set of cultural rituals or rules. The ideal person is the junzi, the "gentleman," which one source better translates as the "moral hero." The moral hero internalizes all of the rules and rituals of culture and society and now turns a moral lens on them in order to determine what behavior or response is really right and ethical versus merely social and cultural convention. The insight derived from this intellectual exercise is an insight into the Way, the nature of the universe, the true moral compass.

Confucius concludes that a perspicacious and flexible view of the world would not only yield the individual a moral insight superior to that of other methods or interpretations but would also offer practical insight into what to do. What to do meant how to judge present circumstances and decide about participating or not participating in dangerous situations such as court life or official service. "Worthy men shun the world," says Confucius in the Analects (14.37).

For Confucius to elaborate on the possibilities of eremitism suggests that the phenomenon was widespread enough to merit discussion. The texts attributed to Confucius, while often taken as conservative in justifying moral convention, are in fact a nuanced avocation for a higher moral view pointing to reclusion as an ethical act.

The option for reclusion is presented as a series of motives. The initial one can be seen as a perception. For example, when the rulers of a province send an emissary to Min Tzu Chien to ask him to become their lord's steward, Min Tzu Chien replies, "Decline on my behalf. If anyone comes to ask me again I'll make sure that I am crossing the Wen River."

In this example, Min Tzu Chien may be said to be simply prudent about government service, with no outward moral intention. But to get to this stage of refusal required a great deal of forethought, if not precedent. At least the readers of the Confucian texts would have that level of acceptance and understanding. "Crossing the Wen River" may seem literal but it is also figurative and symbolic. Such would be the outright esteem already placed at this time on eremitism (or reclusion) for those who practiced moral integrity. As with this example, most of the Confucian anecdotes are presented without commentary or interpretation. Let the wise reader understand, they seems to say.

At a higher and more subtle level is the reply Confucius gives to one who asks why Confucius does not take part in government service. He quotes the Book of Documents in response, which states that simply by being a loyal son and friend to one's brothers one influences government. Hence, he concludes, "What need, then, to be actively involved in government?" The translation for government may be understood to refer to all public activity.

Many of the hermit anecdotes in the writings of Confucius are interpolations by later generations familiar with and extending the concept of moral reclusion. Such a degree of appreciation could not yet exist in the time of Confucius, not without passing through the Taoist philosophical sophistication of Chuang-tzu and Lao-tzu. The stories and interpretations do not appear in other texts contemporaneous with Confucius or shortly thereafter. Notes one source:

We can concludes that while there were a number of people who lived before Confucius who expressed ideas which he took up and developed, or whose conduct he regards as an inspiration or model, as far as eremitism is concerned there is no evidence of any signification cluster of ideas being articulated in any systematic way before him.

This conclusion does not diminish the significance of Confucius with regards to reclusion.

However, this does not mean that the ideas of Confucius by themselves are enough to explain the emergence of Chinese eremitism. Rather, the beginning of eremitism in China came about through the coalescence of a number of cultural elements, some of which may have had quite long histories, but which existed independently of each other until the crucial contribution of Confucius brought them into conjunction.

The origins of the moral hero's values may lie in the religious concept of self-purification, secularized by the time of Confucius. Self-purification such as fasting and avoidance of sense and emotional stimulants (like music) became philosophical concepts. Thus, fasting from food became internal or mental fasting, a mental and spiritual equilibrium that involved avoidance of what worldly people value. As the Confucian text puts it, this mental fasting is a prerequisite to any other kind of perception or right judgment.

Thus a facet of popular religion in ancient China such as fasting -- a form of self-purification which would be deemed a shamanic or personal requisite to communing with ancestral spirits -- became a philosophical principle under Confucianism, linking ostensible asceticism with eremitism. This link was retained and extended by religious Taoism, which, however, reverted to ritual. Philosophical Taoism would refine and secularize apparent asceticism to form a stronger basis for eremitism.

Where Confucius prepared the intellectual shift from ritual to asceticism, Chuang-tzu and Taoism prepared the philosophical shift from asceticism to a philosophy of eremitism. Where Confucius might say that a mourner's fast was pointless without a mental fast, or that service was pointless without a moral motive, Taoism would go further in saying that physical reclusion was pointless without moral reclusion.


A list of bibliographical references will appear in a forthcoming part of this series.