Four Huts: Asian Writings on the Simple Life. Translated by Burton Watson; illustrated by Stephen Addiss. Boston: Shambhala, 2002; first issued 1994 in the Centaur edition series.

The translator has assembled four narratives by medieval and later Chinese and Japanese writers describing their dwellings. These selections are:

Record of the Thatched Hall on Mount Lu
, by Po-Chu-i
Record of the Pond Pavilion, by Yoshishige no Yasutane
Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut, by Kamo no Chomei, and
Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, by Matsuo Basho

Burton Watson, surely one of the best translators of Chinese and Japanese sources, indicates in his preface that these narratives about dwellings and the sort of life lived in them convey not merely diurnal trivia but an "underlying sense of the world and what is to be valued in it." Watson finds the works interesting as set pieces for four different literary talents and case studies of literary influences, each writer being influenced by the previous one.

Perhaps Watson is too modest, for the pieces do not merely "give elegant expression to one of the most important ideals in the artistic and spiritual life of China and Japan, that of the simple life lived in a simple dwelling." They also give expression to the ideal of solitude and to a philosophy of reclusion, especially the latter two writer. The evolution of this ideal through the four writings here presented makes this little book fascinating reading.

Po Chu-i, the Tang-era poet, is not the only Chinese writer on reclusion -- Tao Ch'ien (365-427) comes to mind, except that Tao Ch'ien writes of his simple life through poems. Nor will hermits like Shan Han and the later Stonehouse do: too eccentric to focus on discussing their dwellings. Like Tao Ch'ien, Po Chu-i was a government bureaucrat, effectively exiled to a remote province where, however, he found the isolated environs and life in nature opening up his sense of values. Rather than bemoan his fate and resent his surroundings, Po-Chu-i "fell in love with it."

Life a traveler on a distant journey who passes by his old home, I felt so drawn to it [the setting] I couldn't tear myself away. So on a site facing the peak [of Mount Lu] and flanking the temple I set about building a grass-thatched hall.1

Yoshishige no Yasutane seems to have imitated Po Chu-i's narrative rather literally. Because he does not write as engagingly, his work is the weakest of the quartet here presented. In mentality he seems to have remained very much a bureaucrat. His reflections on contemporary Kyoto and the social chaos resulting from a grand government project to channel the river -- with its consequent cycles of flooding and drought in the fertile suburbs, impoverishing the peasants and resulting in overcrowding in the city -- is reminiscent of Kamo no Chomei's narrative. But Yasutane speaks as a critical civil servant rather than a philosopher, and we hear no echoes of universal lessons learned or imparted, only the voice of cranky discontent. "Why do people have to be so stubborn?" he writes. "Do they expect citizens of the capital to turn into fish?"

His Pond Pavilion is an embarrassingly large (for the period) mansion: a walled and gated complex stretching nearly 4,000 square feet. There is a house for his family, another for his books, a third "to house the Buddha Amida." An artificial hill overlooks an excavated pond, complete with "an island with green pines, a beach of white sand, red carp, white herons, a little bridge, and a little boat."

Yasutane took up quarters in the library, it seems, observing the seasons, wearing hemp, enjoying his retirement in simplicity.

I do not envy the man who soars like a phoenix on the wind, nor the man who hides like a leopard in the mist. I have no wish to bend my knee and crook my back in efforts to win favor with the great lords and high officials, but neither do I wish to shun the words and faces of others and bury myself to the business of the sovereign ...

Yasutane wants to reconcile a life of service with a retirement into simplicity. He tells us that he is no longer interested in the latest rumors or political gossip, is content in his privacy, and demurs from society except for that which he discovers in his library, where

[I] open my books, and find myself in the company of worthy men of the past, those such as Emperor Wen of the Han, a ruler of another era, who loved frugal ways ...

But with Kamo no Chomei's Hojoki or Record of the Ten-Foot-Square Hut we find what Watson rightly calls "one of the undisputed masterpieces of Japanese literature."2 Ironically, Kamo borrowed the concept of his narrative from Yasutane. But Kamo did not write as a polished gentleman in cozy retirement but as an artist, a thinker, a solitary, and a Buddhist monk. The transition in conceiving the dwelling shifts dramatically from an abode for retirement and simple living to a universal symbol of life itself and the person dwelling in the hut-universe.

Kamo's description of the upheaval and social decline of his period is not peevish, like Yasutane's, but eminently philosophical in tone, getting to the gist of how the chaos of the world is but a representation of its evanescence. The opening lines are famous:

The river flows on unceasingly, but the water is never the same water as before. Bubbles that bob on the surface of the still places disappear one moment, to reappear again the next, but they seldom endure for long. And so it is with the people of this world and with the houses they live in.

This passage brilliantly captures the theme of houses or huts as impermanent abodes (a theme brought to full exposition in the Japanese Buddhist tradition by the contemporary itinerant monk Ippen). But Kamo is here going to offer an invaluable testimony to his own hermit hut as the culminating chapter of a much longer narrative about his chaotic world and Kyoto's sequence of war, fire, and earthquake.

The narrative of his hut, the details of its construction, his reflections on how this abode was not only a harmony of dwelling and nature but of dwelling and self, is one of the more invaluable records of eremiticism anywhere.

The last of the four works is Basho's own narrative of his hermit hut: Genjuan no ki or Record of the Hut of the Phantom Dwelling, as Watson translates it.3 Basho is, of course, famous as the archetype poet and rejuvenator of of haiku. Like many of his travel narratives, this piece is in fact a foreword to one haiku, hence it is short and to the point.

As a wandering artist and monk, Basho's sensibilities shun the bureaucrat's notion of retirement as ease, as in Po Chu-i and Yasutane, but also differs from the philosophical pessimism of Kamo. Basho's narrative radiates a spiritual equanimity missing in the three other selections. While clearly having borrowed from the cumulative experience and works of his predecessors, Basho charts his own life of searching, a predisposition to shun the world's affairs, and appreciation for the dwelling place as a projection of self, as a "phantom" -- "unreal," as translator  Donald Keene puts it.

Four Huts was first issued in a small pocket-sized edition ideal for carrying on travels to and from one's own "hut." It is a book to have handy for browsing, reflecting, and reminding oneself of the goal of simplicity.


  1. On Po-Chu-i, see "Thatched Hall, a Chinese Hut" in Hermitary.
  2. On Kamo no Chomei, see "Hojoki, My Hut" in Hermitary.
  3. On Basho, see "Genjuan no fui" in Hermitary.