Eremitism in Ancient China, part 3: One Hundred Schools

From the death of the historical Confucius in the late sixth century to the rise of the Han dynasty in 212 B.C.E., the era of the "Hundred Schools" dominated the thought of ancient China. The perceived monopoly of thought attributed to Confucius fragmented into a "hundred" schools and thinkers -- though the number is exaggerated -- culminating in Taoism.

But the period is also and more familiarly noted for its political and social collapse. The dominant Chou dynasty of over four centuries duration was overrun in 711 B.C.E., beginning a chaotic epoch of hundreds of years of violence and distress. As Joseph Tainter summarizes in his The Collapse of Complex Societies:

Through the Spring and Autumn (770 B-464 BC) and Warring States (463-222 BC) periods, disintegration and endless conflicts were the norms. Powerful regional states emerged which contended endlessly for hegemony, forging and breaking alliances, engaging in wars, and manipulating barbarian groups. Through time, as conflicts intensified, smaller states were continually absorbed. The contending states became few but larger, until the Ch'in reunified China in 221 BC.

Whether the Warring States era ended with the short-lived Ch'in in 221 B.C.E. or the Han in 212 B.C.E. is still debated by scholars.

The many schools of thought in this period wrestled with the essential Confucian ideal of order and civility, attempting to identify the nature of society and the individual. The ideas were not so much conflictive but a "series of strategies for reconciling conflicting ideals in such a way as to make those ideals attainable," as Vervoorn puts it.

But the consensus did not emerge, at least not in a form compelling enough to end the chaos of the era. As Chuang-tzu lamented:

The men of the world all follow their own desires and make these their doctrines. How sad! The hundred schools go on and on, fated never to join again. ... The scholars of later years unfortunately never perceived the parity of Heaven and earth and the great body [of wisdom] of the ancients. The art of the Way in time comes to be rent and torn apart by the world.

More important then the differences among the many thinkers of this period, then, is their common effort (beginning with Confucius) to resolve the conflict not between their ideals but between their ideals and the society around them. As Vervoorn further observes:

If the early philosophers had very firm ideas of what the perfect society was to be like, they were also painfully aware of how remote it was from the violent, chaotic world they inhabited. Yet the ideals of personal conduct they espoused were not predicated upon the prior existence of that perfect society. To live up to ideals in an imperfect world is an arduous task, and which requires, in a sense, a compromise: not personal compromise in what the individual can realistically hope to achieve.

What many of the thinkers of the period have in common is the ideal of eremitism. Their writings explore theories of behavior, psychology, social order, and philosophy, but ultimately address obliquely or directly the ideal of eremitism.

The Confucian Mencius strives to identify the sources of order and civility, but takes eremitism into serious account in his defense of the old social order. Along the way, the dominant schools of thought known as the Mo-ist, the Legalist, and the Agriculturalists represent tangential, obscure, or intriguing presentations of Chinese philosophy directly responding to the chaotic times. These schools, along with the Dialecticians, the Cosmologists, and most importantly the Taoists (though not so called at this time) comprise the schools of this era that have, at any rate, left intelligible texts.

At the of end of the historical spectrum in this period is Taoism. The Taoist philosophy of being and its literal politics of eremitism represents a full blossoming of thought. Eremitism is both theme, antithesis to society, and resolution or "compromise" given the nature of social reality as understood by the Taoist.

The culmination of Chinese thought in this period, as Vervoorn puts it, is eremitism.

Eremitism represents the greatest achievement possible for a man of principle in adverse circumstances; it represents the accommodation of high moral ideals to a harshly refractory reality.

Mencius (Meng-tzu or Mengzi)

Mencius (385-393 B.C.E.) held tenaciously to Confucianism in promoting class and social hierarchy as the source of order and stability in society. To Mencius the obligations are literal for both elite and those who service them, as when he cities the prerogative of the servant to ignore his lord if the lord summons him from afar using the wrong protocol. In his example, a forester refused to come to his lord when summoned with a white flag; properly speaking, he should be summoned with a skin cap. "A common man should be summoned with a plain banner; a scholar who has taken office with one having dragons embroidered on it; and a great official with one having feathers suspended from the top of the staff ("

This example shows the decline in moral acuity from Confucius but is still a vestige of the Confucian saying that one should serve a worthy lord and recluse from an evil one. Here the good and evil is reduced to knowledge of etiquette, a category of what Confucius called "ritual," the preservation of morality by ossifying tradition.

Extrapolated to the question of the gentleman-scholar or Moral Hero serving a lord, then, Mencius maintained that the scholar's grounds for leave-taking was based on his prince's ability to fulfill a promised level of performance conforming to Confucian doctrine. This level could be superficial (rites and music) or significant (refraining from illicit use of violence against others). The criteria was still assumed by Mencius to be objective, minimizing the need for individual interpretation or scruple, relying on anecdotal observation.

By viewing the ceremonial ordinances of a prince, we know the character of his government. By hearing his music, we know the character of his virtue. (

Mencius acknowledges, with Confucius, the moral ideal of Po-i in not serving a corrupt lord, but he does not accept the scrupulousness of the scholar Ch'an Chung, who refused to associate with those whom he did not approve. The story is presented in more than one source, understood to refer, also, to the morality of the hermit.

Ch'an Chung accepted nothing from his brother, whom he considered morally corrupt for having received a large sum of money from a corrupt lord. Chung refused to enter his brother's house. One day, Chung visited his mother, who was cooking a goose presented to her by Chung's brother. When Chung sat to dinner but learned that the meal was the goose brought to his mother by his brother, he went outside of the house and spit it out.

Mencius considered this moral scrupulousness of Ch'an Chung to be the reduction of life to that of an earthworm. Further, Mencius complained, was Ch'an Chung's house built by a Po-i or by a robber like the infamous Chieh? Was the millet Chung ate planted by a Po-i or by a robber like Chieh?

Despite the level of example Mencius has to offer in Ch'an Chung, he does raise the issue of complicity. Complicity has always been an underlying issue among moral questions concerning eremitism. In the issue of complicity, Mencius was evoking a criterion of Confucius and striking for a compromise with the world that was acceptable for the scholar-gentleman who found livelihood becoming extremely problematic. But Mencius  and the Confucian school was not able to achieve a breakthrough on this issue.

Additionally, Mencius demonstrates in other anecdotes a defense of a feudal order that was fast disappearing. He forsakes the eremitical potential of Confucian thought on service to concentrate on methods of reemploying gentleman-scholars at a time when hermits were beginning to proliferate.

Two other schools reflect a similarly unsuccessful direction regarding entrenched Confucianism -- that of Mo-tzu and that of the Legalists.

Mo-tzu (Mozi)

Mo-tzu (470-390 B.C.E.) and his successor Mo-ists saw original human nature as corrupted by contemporary morality and institutions. The Mo-ist presented a concept of universal love and fellowship as the solution, meaning the end of social hierarchy and a benignity of social relations beginning with rulers. Universal love meant the abolition of war, violence, social conflict, and harsh punishment.

To promote such a society, Mo-ists opposed ancient tradition, namely, Confucian tradition. They would suppress music and rites, not  literally but the type they considered expensive, superfluous, and superstitious, for example, ancient funerary ritualism and the auspices-taking preceding war. Mo-tzu cites these two example as oppressive and fostering the worse psychological and moral elements of the culture. Like Confucius, however, he was willing to tolerate "righteous war," wherein chivalrous combat between professionals resolved disputes, leaving the innocent and the infrastructure alone.

Mo-tzu recommended personal austerity, work, and no display of levity. Chuang-tzu remarked that the Mo-ists, "wearing coarse hair-cloth and rough clogs, rest neither by day nor night from the hardship that it was their aim to impose upon themselves, holding that those who were incapable of enduring such a life were not worthy to be called followers of Mo."

But Chuang-tzu acknowledged their high moral standards and the fact that the Mo-ists lived by them. He concludes that the Mo-ists were "right in their ideas but wrong in their practices." The Mo-ists were not persuasive because they did not understand human nature. "They are contrary to the hearts of the world," says Chuang-tzu, "and so the world cannot endure them."

But the Mo-ist criticism of Confucianism and the Confucian attempt to uphold a feudal order that was disintegrating, and with it the artificial values inimical to the times -- war and violence -- were positive aspects of their philosophy, as was the ascetic austerity that would appeal to an eremitic philosophy.


The Fa Chia or School of Law, also called the Legalists or Realists, took the path opposite the Mo-ists in extending Confucianism and feudal prescriptions. Derived from the more conservative inclinations of Confucianism, the Legalists addressed the social disorder of the era by advocating a strengthening of authority and dismissing the autonomy of the individual. Such a solution would attract the buffeted elites nostalgic for the ancient order that had preserved their power and authority.

The Legalist motto was that "law should replace morality" -- hence Arthur Waley calls them "Amoralists." To the Legalists, good or right is whatever the rulers want versus private individual morality or even the will of heaven, as the Mo-ists would put it. The Legalists were unabashed authoritarians.

Recluses and hermits come into special disdain. As Han Fei, the representative Legalist thinker, writes,

There are some whom the world regards as heroes because they chose to leave the throng and walk alone, who pride themselves on being different from other men, who accept the doctrines of quietism and compose songs that are vague and mysterious. Quietism is a useless teaching. Sayings vague and mysterious are inimical to Law.

Men of wisdom recluse, turning back to live in caves and refusing salaries, so that armies cannot avoid weakness and governments cannot avoid disaster.

And Chuang-tzu also quotes the Legalists' opinion of hermits:

They live in inaccessible caves pretending to be engaged in deep thought. The greater among them abuse the ways of the world. The humbler among them mislead the people. (Chuang-tzu 2)

To the Legalist, authority and compulsion were essential to social order. The state had no purpose other than war and expansion, to enrich the powerful and elite, with the corollary of the rest of society providing an adequate food supply. The state, they believed, should have no charitable or social service functions. Social classes in the feudal style should be abolished (except a monarch or emperor), with distinctions of social privelege being based on distinctive performance in war. The Legalists would suppress points of view that differed from the ruling authority as being crimes.

When the chaotic collapse of ancient China was complete, the Ch'in unified the country in 221 B.C.E., ending the Warring States period. Though ostensibly Confucian, the Ch'in were Legalists. Among their first acts was to outlaw books other than technical ones, on the grounds that no other points of view were necessary. They executed hundreds of scholar-gentlemen as well as critics and potential critics of the regime. This undoubtedly led to a new wave of reclusion. 


The school of Farmers and Tillers, or Agriculturalists, offers an insight into a potential social system that can be truly compatible with eremitism. Whether they were aware of this insight is not clear. Their viewpoint presupposes an understanding of why Chinese society was in collapse and chaos, and why Confucianism, Mo-ism and Legalism could not rescue it. This social collapse has already been described, but the outline is important.

The Confucian pattern of gentlemen scholars in the feudal style of employment disappeared by the beginning of the Warring States period. The political and social chaos of the era had taken a toll on the aristocracy that produced the gentlemen-scholars or shi. In part, the number of wandering scholars was reduced, and in part they had transformed themselves into mere aspiring political officials and retainers.

Such a social change affected the practice of reclusion by emphasizing its moral and physical aspects. A shift from reclused official to genuine hermit occurs in the Warring States period. The necessity to make an unambiguous moral decision about service became more compelling with the lack of lords to serve. The desire or need for a more thorough-going physical isolation is also more evident in this period as the complete breakdown of the political and social system made the selling of or squatting on land a viable economic option.

Characteristic of his moribund Confucianism, Mencius tries to discredit the Agriculturalists by contriving exaggerated scenarios and discussions. As Waley puts it, "Mencius had a habit of parodying the views of those with whom he disagreed." Mencius says that the Agriculturalists want everyone from kings to potters, metal-workers, and weavers to give up what they do and to farm. If they did so, argues Mencius, how could each individual do the work proper to him? This argument takes a feudal order as its premise, an order that had disappeared by Mencius' day.

Further, Mencius argues that the Agriculturalists would make all goods have the same value -- that silk should cost what hemp costs, that quality shoes should cost what peasant clogs cost. Perhaps the utopianism of some Agriculturalists did lead Mencius to exaggerate the egalitarian economic ideas of the school. From a practical point of view, a farmer would see silk as less valuable than hemp.

Ultimately, Mencius had to counter the Agriculturalists with a Confucian rebuttal regarding each person's designated station in life:

Some work with their minds, others with their bodies. Those who work with their minds rule, while those who work with their bodies are ruled. Those who are ruled produce food. Those who rule are fed.

As a means of economic survival, farming on an isolated plot attracted both reclused scholars as well as social hermits not of the aristocratic class. The Tillers or Agriculturalists emerged to champion the virtues of land, both moral and economic. As Vervoorn explains:

The alternative to the intellectual and administrative tasks of the shi was direct personal involvement in agricultural production. Physical withdrawal ... meant retirement to some rural spot where they could devote themselves to tilling the soil. But not all of these farmer-hermits farmed because of their social conscience. Some merely aimed at economic self-sufficiency, which amounted to a less drastic but more feasible way of minimizing contact with the world.

The Farmers and Tillers or Agriculturalist school addressed the real need among aspiring hermits of economic viability. The Confucian ideal of a wandering scholar who instructs his lord and does not withdraw from society is also accompanied by anecdotes in the Analects where Confucius is exasperated (but not disgusted) with hermits. A begrudging acknowledgement of such hermits underlay the Analects. While Chuang-tzu cautioned that withdrawal of the mind in society was superior to mindless withdrawal from society, he, too, offers numerous examples of such hermits and their wisdom, and in a far more favorable light than any previous source.


The Confucians failed to press the moral principle behind reclusion to its logical conclusion in applying it not only to individuals but also to institutions. The potential for a philosophy of eremitism continued to reside in the personal character of officials who reclused and in scholars, writers and others who elected to withdraw from society. But a philosophy to take into account the very nature of society remained for Taoism to explore.

With their deepening insight at the end of this era of ancient China, hermits and recluses were consigned to an instinctual practice of personal morality built on the observation that no form of service was superior to reclusion or more efficacious in reducing the political and social chaos of the day. With the emergence of Taoism in Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, the deeper insight and a true eremitic philosophy becomes available.


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