Eremitism in Ancient China, part 2: Analects of Confucius

The rujia or Confucian tradition in ancient China is expressed in texts compiled by disciples of Confucius and his school of thought. The tenets of the tradition are presented as anecdotes about  and sayings of the historical Confucius (551-479 B.C.E.).

The chief text is the Analects (Li chi), followed by lesser works: The Great Learning (Ta hsüeh) and the The Golden Mean (Chung yung) and the commentaries of Mencius (371-289 B.C.E.). A biography by the historian Ssu-ma Chien (145-85 B.C.E.) largely repeats the highlights of anecdotes recorded in the Analects. In these works, but specifically in the Analects, are found not only the intellectual and philosophical principles identified with Confucius, but also the first intimations of eremitism in ancient China.

One commentator summarizes this body of texts and lore thusly: "The tradition contains legends of moral dissidents in distant antiquity who refused government service and consequently were viewed as hermits."

Thus the tradition acknowledged eremitism and eremitic prototypes without fully developing the implications of such a philosophy. Confucius' successor schools did not, either. The Moists developed religious and ritual interests of Confucius without developing the political thought. The Legalists developed the conservative aspect of Confucianism and forged a harder political line in support of law and authority. Only with the growth of Taoism was affirmation of eremitism extended, occasionally using Confucius as a foil in anecdotes, as in Chuang-tzu, though clearly these are not historical incidents.

There are enough references to eremitism in the Confucian texts to have a sense of what Confucius  meant by the gentleman or moral hero, what observers have called the "morally autonomous" individual who came to practice "exemplary eremitism."

Po I and Shuh Chi

The most famous legend of ancient China concerning eremitism is the story of the brothers Po I and Shuh Chi, sons of Wu, ruler of Gu-zhu. The father Wu favored Shih Chi to succeed him. But Shuh Chi was the younger of the two and refused to steal the privilege from his older brother. The older brother, on the other hand, could not refuse his father's wishes. To resolve their moral dilemma, the brothers fled the province, reclusing themselves in the Shou Yang mountains, where they starved to death rather than return to their father's authority.

Other versions of the legend say that the brothers reclused themselves because their father had set off on a military campaign rather than observe the funerary rites of his own just-deceased father. Another version says that Wu made grants of land to his corrupt followers for participating in treacherous deeds like raids and murders. The sons, learning of this, were irreconcilable.

While no historical evidence can confirm these legends about Po I and Shuh Chi, the moral principle behind their reclusion was celebrated by the Confucian tradition. Despite the brothers' reclusion violating a strong social imperative of filial loyalty, the Confucians saw moral principle as the more important value. Here are the notable passages in the Analects:

Po I and Shuh Chi starved to death at the foot of Mt. Shou-Yang, and down to the present the people still praise them (16.12).

The Master [Confucius] said: Po I and Shuh Chi never bore ills in mind, hence those who bore them resentment were few (5.22).

What sort of men were Po I and Shuh Chi, Confucius was asked. Worthies of old, was the reply. Did they complain? he was asked. They sought virtue and attained it. Why would they complain? (7.14)

Elsewhere in the Analects, Po I and Shuh Chi are referred to as "men noted for reclusion into private life" (8.18). They are the exemplars of moral reclusion: "Those who neither compromised their high moral purpose nor themselves were Po I and Shuh Chi" (8.18).

Confucius contrasts this exemplary behavior to that of other recluses, noting that others have fallen short in moral resolve, others have at least achieved some social purposes, and still others despite a high moral purpose have lacked prudence. Regardless of each of these cases, the legendary brothers provide the model for reclusion.

Moral principle

For Confucius, then, the paragon of moral virtue is not just those who theoretically contemplate reclusion but those who are steadfast in action. The first measure comes in the ability to decide about government service.

The person of unwavering sincerity and love of moral discipline will keep to the death his excellent principles. He will not go to an unstable land nor dwell in a rebellious one. When the good prevails in the empire, he is there. When evil prevails, he recluses. When good prevails he is ashamed not to serve. When evil prevails he is ashamed to be associated with service. (8.13)

As with many sages of antiquity, the tradition identified with the historical Confucius appears to be more radical than the tradition that ossifies Confucius in succeeding centuries. The latter took a conservative interpretation of service, for example, seeing order as sufficient and equivalent to morality. The latter view is reductionist, making Confucius merely an advocate of a past feudal order based on hierarchy, decorum, and ritual.

But the efficacy of this ossifying tradition is refuted by the direction of this key maxim concerning service. In succeeding years, this maxim took a decidedly eremitical direction as a crisis of war and discord affected China. What the historical Confucius would have thought is anyone's guess.

The pragmatism of Confucian traditionalism is refuted by Confucius himself.

The scholar and the moral hero will not seek livelihood at the expense of virtue. Some will even sacrifice their lives in order to crown their virtue (15.8).

The criteria established by Confucius is unambiguously based on moral principle.

Wealth and rank are what people desire, but unless they are obtained in the right way, they are not acceptable. Poverty and obscurity are what people hate, but unless the alternative is attained morally, these are the better alternative. An honorable person never forsakes virtue, even for the space of a single meal. In moments of haste, it is to be clung to. In seasons of peril it is to be clung to. (4.5)

Given that government services was the only viable employment for the educated in ancient China, circumspection was a valued survival skill, but moral compromise was inevitable. This is illustrated by the tact of the minister Chu Po Yo, whom Confucius receives one day. Confucius asks him delicately about his lord. Chu Po Yo replies: "He intends to diminish the number of his faults, but has not yet succeeded." (14.26)

Moral compromise, or "reclusion in court," was not enough to assure integrity. Confucius was blunt enough to expect the scholar to "not seek life at the expense of virtue," as mentioned above. The exemplars are not scholars, however. They are true recluses who may or may not have been madmen (like Chueh Yu, discussed below) but are eccentrics who speak prophetically. Confucius wonders that he even knows of least seven genuine recluses.

Some of the virtuous withdraw from the world. Withdrawal from service to emperor is below this in motive. Withdrawal because of harsh words directed against others is next lowest in motive. Withdrawal because of harsh words directed at oneself is next lowest. There are seven men who have done this. (14.50)

Confucius recounts the motives justifying reclusion, but he cannot identify any contemporaries.

"They look up at the good as if fearing not to reach it, and shrink from evil has if from scalding water." I have seen such men, and I have heard such sayings. "They dwell in seclusion to reflect on their purpose and to practice right living in order to extend their principles." I have heard such sayings, but I have never seen such men. (16.11)

Encounters with hermits

Three encounters with true recluses are recounted in the Analects. The stories are repeated by Ssu-ma Chien, hence confirming their significance. In the first story, historians assume that the Chieh Yu of Chu named is a madman (18.5). But the subterfuge of madness was not an unfamiliar device.

Chieh Yu, a recluse of Chu, walked past the carriage of Confucius one day, singling loudly, "Oh, Phoenix! Oh, Phoenix! What a fall is coming! Regret for the past is futile, but the future may yet be changed. Stop! Stop! The peril to those who hold office is terrible." Confucius got out of his carriage intent upon speaking to him, but the recluse hurried away and out of sight.

In the second lengthy account, Confucius encounters two peasant brothers (18.6)

Chang Chu and Chieh Ni were cultivating their land together when Confucius passed that way. Confucius sent his disciple Tzu Lu to inquire about a certain ford in the river.

"Who is that holding the reins of that carriage?" asked Chang Chu. "It is Confucius," replied Tzu Lu. "Confucius of Lu?" "Yes." Chang Chu said, "Then he knows where to find the ford."

Tzu Lu then turned to Chieh Ni, who asked him his name. Tzu Lu told him. "Are you the disciple of Confucius of Lu?" asked Chieh Ni. "Yes," replied Tzu Lu. Chieh Ni looked at him. "The whole world is rushing headlong like a swelling torrent and you think you will find someone to help you stop it? Instead of following someone who flees from one place and one lord after another, wouldn't you be better off following those who flee the world altogether?" With that Chieh Ni went back to raking the soil.

Tzu Lu returned to Confucius and reported what had transpired. Confucius looked surprised and remarked, "I cannot herd with birds and beasts. If I am not to associate with people, then with whom am I to associate? If virtue reigned in the world, I should not be trying to reform it."

In this candid view of not mere reclused scholars or former officials but what are presented as rustic recluses, classic hermits, the hesitant tradition of a qualified reclusion is punctured. The exchange with the hermits challenges the assumption that reforming the world is an imperative. The hermits point out that anyone in society, master or not, is rushed along to the same fate as the ignorant or unvirtuous. To pursue a master caught up in the world is no different than following an ignorant or unvirtuous person. The image of a single person standing in the rapids of a raging river, whether a master or ignoramus, trying futilely to stop the onrushing current is what the hermit sees and those in the current do not.

The response of the Confucian tradition is contained only feebly in this anecdote, with the mild protestations of Confucius. A further response, more emphatic, is found in the third anecdote.

Once Tzu Lu was accompanying Confucius on a journey but happened to fall behind. He met an old man carrying a basket and a staff and asked him if he had seen his master. The old man responded, "You whose four limbs have never known work, who cannot distinguish the five grains: who is your master?" He did not wait for a response but stuck his staff into the ground and began weeding.

Tzu Lu stood in silence. The hour grew late, and the old man brought Tzu Lu into his home, prepared a meal for him, and introduced his two sons.

Next morning, Tzu Lu went on his way. When he caught up with Confucius, he reported what had transpired. Confucius only nodded, saying, "He is a recluse." Then he asked Tzu Lu to go back and talk to the man, but when he got to the house, the old man was out and only his sons were there. Tzu Lu took advantage of the sons' presence and scolded them in words like these:

It is wrong to refuse to serve one's country. If the obligations between young and old in daily life may not be set aside, then how is it that your father sets aside the duty between a lord and his master? Your father strives to maintain his sense of purity but he subverts a basic obligation to society. Regardless of what office the wise man occupies, he does so in order to fulfill his duty, even though he may be well aware that right principles have ceased to affect any change in society or in the court.

So Tzu Lu, in eager support of Confucius, ends up unaware of the essential moral compromise he would enjoin on others while avoiding it himself. Tzu Lu here represents the successors of Confucius, overlooking their master's own dictum: when the emperor is good, serve, when the emperor is evil, recluse.

Would the hermit's sons have been better off physically and morally by violating the insight of the virtuous for the sake of outward duty? No wonder this anecdote has Confucius knowingly concluding that the old man's impeccable logic is that of the hermit. No wonder Confucius wants to follow up on what the hermit might have to say.


The life of Confucius and his immediate disciples is indicative of what Confucianism should have meant historically. The historian Ssu-ma Chien has Confucius reflect on the fact that he went from one province to another in futile search of a worthy lord and master. "Neither buffaloes nor tigers, they wander in the desert," he has Confucius say. Then Confucius wonders, "Are my teachings wrong?" How is it that I find myself now in this situation?" One of the disciples replies that the teachings of Confucius are too lofty and that he ought to compromise somewhat so that the world will accept them. Another disciple asserts that the teachings are fine and that that is the reason why the world does not accept them, that Confucius ought not to care if the world accepts them for they only prove that he is a virtuous man. No doubt Confucius shook his head and said to them, "Enough!"

The presence of eremitism in the Analects is clear. But the character of Confucius is presently ambiguously with regards to the actual course of life to be pursued by the virtuous person. The anecdotes show the deep reflectiveness of ancient Chinese culture on the brink of serious reflection on great issues of culture, morals, and behavior. Confucius is as fresh and provocative today as in antiquity. The subsequent course of eremitism, the evolution from scruples about retirement to true reclusion in the centuries that follow, make Confucius a true prototype of eremitism.


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