The Politics of Reclusion


I have permission of “ Meng-hu” the pseudonymous author of this essay to repost his words. They are a powerful and eloquent statement of the history and energy of reclusion. Reclusion is central to the advice of the Tao Te Ching.  My  own personal response to his words appears at the end of the essay.

The genius of historical China rests in the oscillation between Confucian and Taoism, between yang and yin. Confucianism is concerned with politics, ritual, education, hierarchy — all yang elements. Taoism is concerned with art, poetry, nature, seasons — all yin elements. Within ancient China, these elements function like forces of energy, sometimes predominating, sometimes not. To find unique conceptions and insights is to identify ideas within both schools of thought. One such idea and practice is reclusion.

Reclusion is the conscious disengagement from relations with authority figures and structures. In ancient China, reclusion was considered an expression of deep philosophy based on an ethical premise as much as a practical action based on empirical observation about survival and well-being. An ancient Chinese saying ascribed to Confucius is apply summarized: “When the emperor is good, serve; when the emperor is evil, recluse.”

Two premises of the saying are clear. First, the saying assumes the inevitability of emperorship, and second, takes into account the vagaries of personality as the cause of stability or chaos. So-called good times legitimize not so much the emperor as the structure of empire. The saying promotes service in the state bureaucracy by the literate and intelligent of the day, often called scholars, usually scions of noble and mercantile families. Because the ancient Chinese state controlled all major enterprises, no other employment was deemed worthy of the educated man.

On the other hand, if the emperor was tyrannical and authoritarian, as in the violence-ridden Warring States era (471-221 BCE), resignation from government service and avoidance of summons to service was considered ethical and necessary, regardless of hardship. But Confucian theory could not reconcile imperial wars and military conscription in its advice, however, because scholars were easily exempted.

Taoists of the Former Han period (post-200s BCE) went further than Confucians. Taoists of this era maintained that the emperor and the empire were intrinsically evil. No service could be ethically justified, regardless of the personality of the emperor. To Taoists, Confucian recluses were mere retirees, not true recluses. The real issue was only the form of life that reclusion should take. The recluse must craft a life promoting the pursuits of virtue, which did not intersect with the goals of empire.

The ethical dilemma is suggested in the Taoist classic “Lao-tzu,” dating from the Warring States period, where an outline of ideal society is proposed and the governor of this society, emulating the rulers of the primordial past, govern so wisely that their presence is not noticed. The contemporary school of Tillers and Farmers, while not expressly Taoists, championed a society based on nature, agriculture, and small independent villages — much like the rural China of the period, but autonomous and quite functional without the intervention of the emperor or his ministers. The classic “Chuang-tzu,” dating from the late Warring States period, also vehemently refuted the ethical and social claims of the emperor and disdained the scholars who did not recluse.

A new controversy emerged with the rise of the Former Han era, a peaceful and orderly time following the chaotic Warring States period. Confucians, long suppressed by the authoritarian Legalists now defeated, reemerged with a new angle to the issue of reclusion. No need for reclusion now, they argued, as they resumed their stations in the imperial court and ministries. They restored standardized state examinations for aspiring bureaucrats and established Confucian rituals and occultism as the state religion. The classic “I Ching,” ancient book of divination, was now declared to show that the times were appropriate for service. The emperor’s minions scattered to the countryside to coerce literate or merely capable men to accept appointments to the bureaucracy, a means of lending legitimacy to the latest emperor’s reign.

But though the number of Confucian recluses dropped, and not all Confucians agreed with the new interpretation, Taoists uniformly persisted in refusing to serve or to engage the bureaucracy in any way. Over the centuries, Taoists had crafted three versions of ethical reclusion.

1. Reclusion in the city, or, becoming a “hermit of the marketplace,” a hermit in the crowd.” This life-style aimed at inconspicuousness, a low profile in the heart of the busy imperial capital or other cities, and in the midst of the thriving neighborhoods. During the Han era, Zuang Zun, for example, would close his modest divination shop at midday in order to quietly teach Taoism in a back room of his shop. A student of Zuang Zun ascribed this saying to him: “What increases my goods harms my spirit; what makes my reputation destroys my self. It is for this reason that I do not serve.

Pursing a craft or skill, studying the classics, partaking of a life of conviviality within a community of like-minded — this was reclusion in the city. The “hermit in the crowd” was the ideal of the historical Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi).

2. Reclusion to a farm or village affirmed the Taoist principles of simplicity and naturalness while providing greater anonymity than in a city and a more favorable setting for reflection and solitude. The recluse venturing to the land often worked side by side with simple folk of modest interests. Thus the intellectual Song Sheng-zhai quit the city to become a shepherd, take up the zither, become adept at calligraphy, and live in obscurity while practicing his virtue. The school of Tillers and Farmers early mentioned also contributed to Taoist thought by developing philosophical support for this form of reclusion.

3. Reclusion to obscure natural places by those called by tradition “scholars of mountains and forests” and “men of cliffs and caves.” These were the classic hermits of ancient China who disengaged not only from the empire but from society itself, including to some degree rural society, living in virtual isolation. Much revered by the ordinary populace, the hermits were often apotheosized by Taoist religion as those who had achieved immortality.

Reclusion thus predated the coming of Buddhism to China. When Buddhism arrived, the mingling of Taoist and Buddhist thought engendered Chan or Zen. The development of Japanese culture was not only dependent on Chinese influences but favorably inherited Chan as compatible with its indigenous Shinto, so that many elements in Japanese thought and belief become further catalysts to the theory and practice of reclusion.

Ancient Chinese reclusion points to the truism that change revolves around attitudes towards empire, that is, towards power. If empire is mandated by time, history, progress, or fate, or even if it is not mandated at all in history, then emperors become irrelevant, and all empires are intrinsically evil, and attempts at external change are debilitating and fruitless. Only disengagement and reclusion are ethical and sustainable alternatives to inimical structures.


About Meng-hu

Meng-hu is the pseudonym of the webmaster of Hermitary (, a web site devoted to hermits and solitude. He resides somewhere in the United States as a  semi-urban hermit.”

William Martin’s personal response.

The justice system allows a judge to recuse him or herself because of a conflict of interest. That is very much what I am feeling. I have a conflict of interest with the very core assumptions and mechanisms of my society and therefore must recuse myself from overt participation. I recognize that I cannot possibly live completely unconnected to social webs, but I can, as much as possible, choose the social strands from among my personal and local community; I can buy and sell as much as possible within that community. I can refrain from taking larger state-sanctioned webs seriously and give them a minimum of attention and energy. I will participate in authentic relationships with people who wish to relate to me. I will speak my mind if so inclined. I will write for those who wish to read my thoughts. But I do not consider myself a citizen of the state nor do I recognize an obligation to it. If I choose to follow some of its rules it will be purely for my own personal reasons, not from duty, patriotism, or obligation. I recuse myself.