6. Eremitism in Ancient China: the Former Han (220 BCE - 9 CE)

During the Warring States period, Confucian reclusion had established what Berkowitz calls "patterned portrayals of mythic and archtypic formulas" extolling Confucian reclusion. Those who had chosen ethical principles above service to a corrupt ruler, emperor, or system were dubbed "Moral Hero", "Wise Rustic," "Paragon of Extraordinary Virtue (or Conduct)." The phrase "Ill-fated Wretch" was applied to recluses who actively suffered for their decision. 

With the rise of Taoism and its philosophical emphasis on individual insight, additional descriptors emerged: "Perfect Man," "Inconspicuous One," "Attentive and Transcendent One," "Immortal," and the Chuang-tzu ideal of "Untroubled Idler." The recluses varied from scholar-gentleman in the Confucian tradition to the Taoist hermit-in-the-crowd, to whose who quit the city for a life of simplicity on a farm or in a village, or a life of eremitism in forest or mountain seclusion.

All of these archtypes and hermit models continued in the Former Han.


The authoritarian doctrine of Legalism reigning over much of the Warring States period (475-221 BCE) had overthrown political and philosophical discourse in ancient China. The first Han emperor after the Warring States period ended was an illiterate peasant and populist Gaozu. Gaozu quickly concluded that the inculcation of Confucianism would restore the empire to stability, order, and morals. Such an agenda required consulting and appointing scholars as officials. Gaozu essentially sought to reestablish the ascendancy of Confucian tradition.

With emperor Wu Di (140-87 BCE), Confucianism became state policy and practice. His reign established examinations for aspiring candidates to official bureaucracy, and the philosophy of Confucian thinker Zhongshu (179-104 BCE) elevated. The realm was still undermined by frontier wars and the slow pace of economic recovery and reform. 

The sucession or usurpation of Wang Mang (45 BCE-9 CE) after a brief regency and his 9 CE declaration of a new Xin dynasty ending the Han was in part due to the slowness of equitability reforms. An established court and military figure, Wang Mang accelerated reforms, eventually radically so. He offended the mercantile class with taxes, market controls, and currency revisions. He offended wealthier landowners with redistribution plans. His downfall was further due in part to his abrupt and impolitic personality alienating potential allies and supporters. Many court officials grew disaffected from Wang Mang because they were themselves part of the wealthy families affected by reforms.

The end of the Wang Mang interlude thus marks the periopd between a Former or Northern Han (220 BCE-23 CE) and Later or Southern Han (25-220 CE).

Eremitism in the Former Han

The reunification of the empire and the relative peace of the Former Han challenged the ethical premises of eremitism. The reaffirmation of the orthodoxy of Confucianism praised and rewarded the "virtuous who serve." New Text Confucianism promoted the I Ching concept of perceiving the appropriate time to act -- as opposed to the appropriate time to recluse. This notion bolstered service against reclusion, especially in an era of optimism and peace. It also reinvigorated the Confucian popular religion of signs, omens, occult interests, rituals, ceremonies, and sacrifices, all based on Confucian notions of a heavenly mandate, the favored character of the emperor and of the new social and political order.

But the perceived dominance of Confucianism and de-emphasis on reclusion i partly due to our dependence on Sima Qian (History of the Han Dynasty) and Ban Gu (Book of Han) as historical sources. As Vervoorn notes: "Unfortunately those two great historians were not particularly interested in hermits." On the other hand, the leading intellectual Xang Xiong (53 BCE-18 CE), writer of Pronouncements, was.

An example of Ban Gu's attitude is reflected in this comment:

Men of the mountain forests go but are unable to turn back ... Men of purity and integrity came to be treasured, but the great majority of these were only able to regulate themselves, they were not able to regulate others.

Lu Jia in New Discourses is not only critical but contemptuous:

As to throwing away one's clothes and tousling one's hair, climbing high mountains and living on fruit and nuts: observe such people and they have no carefree, relaxed expression, listen to them and they have nothing to say about benevolence and righteousness. They are as muddle-headed as madmen.

Thus the momentum of Confucian society was opposed to cultivation of self and eremitism and considered the recluse selfish and arrogant. Still, Han Confucianism was influenced to some degree by Huang-Lao Taoism, which carefully distinguished motives and conditions of reclusion in their interaction with Confucian theory. Eclectic and pragmatic, Huang-Lao Taoism was based on the Huainan-zu and seemed to emerge tentatively. Two instances demonstrate this tentaiveness.

The poem "Summoning the Hermit," produced in the court of Liu An (179-122 BCE), king of Huainan, reflects on the wild environs to which hermits reclused. Vervoorn notes that while epitaphs like "scholars of the mountains and forest" and "scholars of the cliffs and caves" were sometimes used "synecdochicaly" to refer to the general category of those committed to high ideals of personal conduct, "this poem must be interpreted literally -- anything less would make it virtually meaningless." The poem catalogs the dangers of the wilderness: plunging recesses, steep ravines, craggy rocks, hostile lions, tigers, bears, and baboons. "O prince, return!" concludes the poet. "In the mountains you cannot stay long." But hermits in the city also withdrew, remaining inconspicuous, cultivating isolation, and anonymity. The poem summons them, too. Thus the poem portrays dangers and essentially prises the hermits, who braves them, successfully.

Also tentaive are the reflections of an official, Gong Sui, on the new dimensions of ethical conflict in the Han era:

In antiquity, rules were generous and even a great minister could retire. For me to leave my post now is impossible. I fear that a pretense of madness would be detected, while to take my own life would be to disgrace myself before the age. So what can I do?

Gong Sui refers here to famous acts of historical recluses: Fe-yi, who feigned madness, and Gong Sheng, who took his own life rather than serve the emperor. The relentless pressure on anyone of talent or character to serve the government cannot be underestimated. Yet even in this era of stability, many chose to recluse. "Living in a relatively enlightened age did not preclude the possibility of having to endure individual hardship or making a personal decision to withdraw," notes Vervoorn. For example, Zhu Yan faithfully served under Yuan (48-33 BCE) but was imprisoned under Cheng (33-7 BCE) for criticizing a favorite of the latter, and reclused to teach after his release. Wang Zhange held a lofty position in the same Cheng period and was imprisoned for critcizing a military commander but died in captivity.

As the Han era evolved, the recommendatory system became entrenched. The Imperial Academy became a Confucian stronghold, and the characteristics of exemplary eremitism were reversed in purpose, used as a way to identify, recruit, and enlist new candidates for official appointment. Criteria of speech, personal conduct, blamelessness, deference, and talent reversed appearances. Ambitious men parroted these behaviors in order to attract summons. Thus the imperial argument was not that reclusion prompted by corruption of the emperor (or empire) but by the too lofty moralism of hermits. As Vervoorn notes,

The type of eremitism which the recommendatory system helped to generate was essentially eremitism in quest of fame, not the sort of escape from fame advocated by Zhuangzi.

Famous hermits

Among famous recluses of the Former Han mentioned by Berkowitz and Vervoorn are mythologized hermits Dong-guo, Liangshi, Master Anqi, Kuai-tong, and the Four Greybeards (or Hoaryheads). The stories about these hermits "inspire little historical conviction," concludes Vervoorn, but the mere existence of the stories reveals the values of the era, and their popularity in latter centuries is "testimony of the keen interest which eremitism continued to arouse in Chinese intellectuals throughout the ages."

Among mythologized Huang-Lao Taoists were Sir Ge, Master Wang, Sir Yellow Stone, and Mei Fu. Among historical hermits described by Ban Gu are Zhuang Zun (or Yan Junping, according to his student Yang Xiong), Zhi Jun (perhaps fictional), Huang-fui, Sir Chen or Cheng, Anqi Wangshu (commentator on Lao-tzu), Li Hong (who when summoned to service disappeared), and Zhang Zhong Wei, devoted to the practice of virtue and living in anonymous poverty.

More famous was Song Sheng-zhai, who refused a proferred court post and left the capital to herd sheep. In his rural setting, he learned the zither and became adept at calligraphy. But the fame of his simple virtue spread and he was sought out again for appointment to the court. One day he disappeared further into anonymity, where he could not be found. 

Xun Yue and his brother Xun Xiang refused an invitation to court with the excuse of illness. The latter brother was imprisoned and died. Zhong Fu declined an appointment to office and left his home to work anonymously on a farm, while quietly pursuing virtue and study. He soon entered Taoist myth.

Historical hermits Han Fu (80 BCE) and Li Hong (the former a Confucian, the latter a Taoist) disappeared shortly after being summoned to court service.

Huangfu Mi's Biographies of Lofty Men relates the story of the hermit Zhi Jun (Boling), a friend of the historian Sima Qian. Zhi Jun retired to the mountains. His scholarly friend criticized him for wasting his talent in such a favorable era. But Zhi Jun reputedly replied:

I have heard that gentlemen of old took part in affairs according to the level of their ability and remained at home according to the measure of their virtue. ... I wish for nothing more than to be on my back, gazing upwards, without a care, whiling away my remaining years.

More about famous hermits

According to the historian Sima Qian, the Four Greybeards (or Hoaryheads) were four elderly men who had withdrawn to the Chang Mountains towards the end of the Warring States era. But the four elders refused the solicitations of Gaozu to return from reclusion and serve. The emperor's strategist Zhang Liang urged them to present themselves not on the emperor's behalf but on behalf of the Empress Lui, mother of the young heir-designate; the emperor was about to designate the son of a favored concubine to the succession against his own legitimate son.

The Four Greybeards complied, appearing in court at a banquet held for the heir-designate, thus silently rebuffing the emperor and his intent. The four immediately departed, never to be seen again.

By the 4th century CE, religious Taoism had apothesized them: "The Four Hoaryheads of Shang Mountain imbibed the Nine-times Compound and Elixer, and feeding on sap, attained the Way." But other versions, including that of Huangfu Mi, tell only of their rebuff of Gaozu's summons, without the story of returning to court over the issue of the heir-designate. As Huangfu Mi sums it, the four elders simply retreated to "hospitable wildererness where they could maintain their virtue intact" and never reppeared. 

Huangfu Mi reprints the "Song of the Four Greybeards" or "Song of the Southern Mountains," which helped secure the recognition of the four elders. Concludes the poem evocatively:

Wealth and nobility may awe people, but
that cannot compare to the way that
being poor and humble frees the will.

The Four Greybeards became a favorite subject of 16th and 17th-century Japanese art, where their symbolic presence projected a silent critique of the regime, as in the case of ancient China.

Zhuang Zun typifies the hermit-in-the-city of Chuang-zu's Taoism, called shi-yin or hermits of the marketplace. He drew a modest living in the capital as a diviner in the marketplace, but would cease his day's work when it suited him in order to teach Taoism. His student Yang Xiong wrote of him: 

Zhuang of Shu lives deep in obscurity, and this is the treasure of his genius. He does nothing that might attract improper attention, handles nothing that might bring improper gain. He remains in seclusion without altering the principles he holds. [Quoting Zhuang himslef]: "What increases my goods harms my spirit; what makes my reputation destroys my self. It is for this reason that I do not serve."

Other sources echo this sentiment concerning Zhuang Zun. Ban Gu says of him that "the people of Shu loved and respected him and he is praised there to this day." Chang Qu, in his Chronicle of the Hoayang Region, says of Zhuang Zun that he was of "a noble nature, a tranquil manner enhanced by learning."

A striking illustration of Confucian eremitism at the end of the Former Han is the story of Gong Sheng, who reclused from office with the overthrowal of the Han and rise of Wang Mang. The high-profile reclusion was particularly irksome to Wang Mang as a refusal to acknowledge his legitimacy. He sent minions to badger Gong Sheng to return to service. Instead Gong Sheng quit all food and drink, and died. Already dubbed "Moral Hero" for his reclusion, Gong Sheng became "Paragon of Extraordinary Conduct" upon his death (or martyrdom).

The funeral scene is described by the contemporary history, the Han-shu:

Disciples, hemp-clad mourners, and funeral participants were counted by the hundreds. An elderly fellow came to mourn, whose wailing was extreme. Presently, he said,"This incense burns itself up on account of its fragrance; oil depletes itself on account of its brightness. Master Gong in the end cut off prematurely his appointed years -- thus he was no cohort of mine." The man then left in a hurry; nobody knew his identity.

Why did the old man weep for Gong Sheng, but then criticize him so severely? The old man, who became known as the Old Man of Peng-cheng, was called a "Hidden Man" by contemporary Huang-Lao Taoists. The Old Man had "hidden himself, cultivating the Way, not working toward reputation or gain," in contrast to Gong Sheng. Gong Sheng was a Confucian whose reclusion was mere retirement, according to the Taoist thinking of the Old Man of Peng-cheng. Gong Sheng had merely waited until old age to retire, taking up a temporary solution to an ethical dilemma. But the unconditional reclusion of the Peng-cheng elder represented true reclusion.

A story that postulates a fifth Greybeard, named Ting Yao, is relevant. Ting Yao resided in the Huaiyana Mountains, and had refused on principle to join the Four in returning to court. This act prompted the 5th-century historian Huan Baozhen to remark that "The Four Hoaryheads of Shang Mountain cannot compare with the single elder from Huiyang [that is, Peng-cheng]." 


Eremitism in the Former Han was associated with a mix of Confucian and Taoist elements, with relatively stable political and socio-economic conditions leaving reclusion less to scholar-gentlemen and increasingly to the very principled and ethically-minded. The Han years reflect what Berkowitz calls "the individualization of reclusion." A highlight of this trend is the incident of Gong Sheng and the Pengching Old Man, contrasting the "occasional reclusion" of the former (Confucian) with the "unconditional reclusion" of the latter (Taoist). "Substantive reclusion," concludes Berkowitz, is "actualized disengagement." The comment accurately describes the era because the conditions of state and society always fall short of satisfying the eremitically-minded.


Alan J. Berkowitz: Patterns of Disengagement: the Practice and Portrayal of Reclusion in Early Medieval China. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univerity Press, 2000; Aat Vervoorn: Men of the Cliffs and Caves: the Development of the Chinese Eremitic Tradition to the End of the Han Dynasty. Hong Kong: Chinese University Press, c1990.