Up the Moun­tains

As mil­len­ni­als tire of city life, the hum­ble her­mit makes a come­back

The World of Chinese - - Cover Story -

I “have sat here qui­etly and let my brush fly/ Sud­denly this vol­ume is full,” the ninth-cen­tury poet Han Shan (寒山) once wrote, asked to de­scribe what he found in­ter­est­ing about life on “Cold Moun­tain,” the jagged peak from which he took his name.

For many young peo­ple, liv­ing in the iron-and-con­crete sky­scrapers that dom­i­nate China’s newly de­vel­oped cities, the view from the rugged moun­tain­top can seem far more at­trac­tive than the smoggy skies and crowded roads of their daily rou­tine. The urge to “to be free of all this/against all the world, choose sim­plic­ity,” as wilder­ness poet Xie Lingyun (谢灵运) de­scribed af­ter his ex­ile from the cap­i­tal in 422, is a com­mon one.

Go­ing back to na­ture, to a life of com­mon sim­plic­ity, free from the din of ma­te­ri­al­ism—it’s an at­trac­tive propo­si­tion. In part that’s be­cause, for all its revered roots in tra­di­tion, the her­mit life is one that bliss­fully re­jects ev­ery­thing Chi­nese so­ci­ety now holds dear: fam­ily, prop­erty, ca­reer, con­nec­tiv­ity.

In the in­for­ma­tion age, to cut one­self off en­tirely is an ac­tively trans­gres­sive choice—but one that some are more than happy to make. Shen Lix­ing, a cab driver from Zhengzhou, is among the sev­eral dozen who have traded a city apart­ment for a small cell on Wangwu, a moun­tain in He­nan prov­ince that’s been im­bued with spir­i­tual sym­bol­ism since China’s le­gendary Yel­low Em­peror sup­pos­edly built the first al­tars on its sum­mit.

In her pre­vi­ous oc­cu­pa­tion, Shen told Xin­hua, she was “self­ish, badtem­pered and greedy,” but life on Wangwu has given her a calm­ing new per­spec­tive. Shen has a tele­vi­sion and mo­bile phone, and checks the news daily, but oth­ers on Wangwu ab­jure even those small lux­u­ries, pass­ing their time solely with in­tro­spec­tive ac­tiv­i­ties like cal­lig­ra­phy prac­tice, hik­ing, or med­i­ta­tion at one of the moun­tain’s Daoist tem­ples.

Dao­ism is strongly as­so­ci­ated with her­mits in China be­cause of its em­pha­sis on har­mony with na­ture’s rhythms—as op­posed to the state’s

THE HER­MIT LIFE IS ONE THAT BLISS­FULLY RE­JECTS EV­ERY­THING CHI­NESE SO­CI­ETY NOW HOLDS DEAR: FAM­ILY, PROP­ERTY, CA­REER, CON­NEC­TIV­ITY

pref­er­ence for grand en­gi­neer­ing projects, like the Three Gorges Dam, which seek to sub­orn na­ture to the hu­man will. But it’s the rapid ur­ban­iza­tion that China has un­der­gone over the last four decades that is, per­haps, chiefly re­spon­si­ble for cul­ti­vat­ing the re­newed in­ter­est of peo­ple like Shen in the soli­tary life.

The plea­sures and sim­plic­ity of pass­ing weeks in a grotto with only the birds for com­pany can seem par­tic­u­larly abun­dant com­pared to deal­ing with dodgy builders, crooked de­vel­op­ers, com­plex own­er­ship laws and sky­rock­et­ing prices, al­though the at­trac­tions of her­mit life have never been lim­ited to Chi­nese cul­ture.

Third-cen­tury Egypt had its Desert Fa­thers and Moth­ers, Chris­tian as­cetics whose ex­am­ple proved so pop­u­lar that, by the time their leader, An­thony the Great, died, “the desert had be­come a city,” ac­cord­ing to An­thony’s bi­og­ra­pher. Their spir­i­tual think­ing was col­lected in the Apoph­theg­mata Pa­trum (“Say­ings of the Fa­thers”), a col­lec­tion of di­a­logues that em­bed­ded ex­pec­ta­tions of wis­dom into the as­cetic lifestyles that con­tinue to this day. The recluse Richard Rolle, whose The Fire of Love cel­e­brated the in­tense psy­chic joys of soli­tary prayer life, was one of the most widely read Chris­tian mys­tics in the Mid­dle Ages but, by the era of Roger Crab, a ve­gan prophet who died in Uxbridge in 1680, a more en­light­ened out­look was tak­ing grip.

The “Age of Rea­son” cel­e­brated sci­en­tific proof over re­li­gious fer­vor (Crab, who’d been se­verely wounded in the head while sol­dier­ing, may have been the in­spi­ra­tion for Lewis Car­roll’s deliri­ous Mad Hat­ter), and her­mits be­came an or­na­men­tal ac­ces­sory, hired by wealthy Ge­or­gians to dec­o­rate their newly land­scaped es­tates, a tra­di­tion bor­rowed from Ro­man em­per­ors like Hadrian. One was even paid a small for­tune to live alone in Pain­shill Park for seven years, wear­ing noth­ing but a camel­hair cloak, but sup­pos­edly only lasted three weeks be­fore visit­ing a lo­cal tav­ern.

By the late 19th cen­tury, the fru­gal fig­ure of the her­mit had been en­tirely eclipsed by rich ec­centrics like the fifth Duke of Port­land, who built miles of tun­nels be­neath Wel­beck Abbey for pri­vacy, and was im­mor­tal­ized by Ken­neth Gra­ham’s Badger, who be­lieved “there’s no se­cu­rity, or peace or tran­quil­ity, ex­cept un­der­ground.”

The present-day her­mit takes sev­eral forms. There are the dozens of look­outs that man the re­mote sen­try tow­ers of Amer­ica’s na­tional parks, scan­ning the wilder­ness for plumes of smoke, af­fec­tion­ately known as “freaks on the peaks.” There are a few re­main­ing “of­fi­cial” her­mits, such as the oc­cu­pant of Aus­tria’s 350-year-old Saalfelden her­mitage, who vol­un­teer to live peace­fully, spir­i­tu­ally and un­paid in church lodg­ings, with­out mod­ern ameni­ties. And there are the “Into the Wild” types like Chris Mc­can­d­less, a young home­less Amer­i­can who died trag­i­cally try­ing to ful­fill ro­man­tic no­tions of liv­ing rough in Alaska’s wilds, or Christo­pher Knight, the “North Pond Her­mit,” who spent 27 years liv­ing makeshift in the Maine for­est be­fore be­ing ar­rested for bur­glary.

China’s mil­len­nia-old tra­di­tion of moun­tain-high monas­ti­cism en­sures a sim­i­lar mix, though mod­ern in­ter­est in this ex­is­tence was mostly the work of an Amer­i­can—the writer, trans­la­tor, and for­mer monk Bill Porter, who calls him­self “Red Pine” (赤松) in Chi­nese af­ter the Daoist im­mor­tal. In 1989, af­ter sev­eral years liv­ing at a Bud­dhist monastery in Tai­wan, Porter set out to find what re­mained of China’s Daoist her­mits, whose cus­toms would have been com­pletely at odds with the Maoist ethic of col­lec­tivism and in­dus­tri­al­iza­tion sweep­ing the coun­try af­ter 1949.

De­spite the decades of up­heaval and po­lit­i­cal cam­paigns, Porter tracked down sev­eral her­mits who’d sur­vived un­mo­lested in the Zhong­nan moun­tain­ous re­gion of south­ern Shaanxi, pub­lish­ing his find­ings in Se­cluded Orchids in a De­serted Val­ley《空谷幽兰》( ) in 2001. The book, known as Road to Heaven: En­coun­ters with Chi­nese Her­mits in English edi­tions, sold only a few thou­sand copies ini­tially, but af­ter it was re­pub­lished in 2009 by a small busi­ness press, it be­came a sud­den best­seller in China. As one of the ear­lier over­seas cheer­lead­ers for Chi­nese cul­ture, Porter’s book pro­voked a spike of in­ter­est in a way of life many had as­sumed was long gone, but which had, along­side other, pre­vi­ously re­viled spir­i­tual cus­toms, un­der­gone a quiet resur­gence in the re­form era.

To some, Porter’s book was proof of the say­ing “The wise live on the moun­tains,” and the peace­ful peaks of Zhong­nan were soon bustling with as­pi­ra­tional as­cetics and wannabe wise men. Some built their own shel­ter, wear­ing linen, prac­tic­ing cal­lig­ra­phy, and keep­ing their hair long.

How­ever, not ev­ery­one who builds a hut be­comes a her­mit. Zhang Jian­feng, whose own book on Zhong­nan’s moun­tain men was di­rectly in­spired by Porter, has seen plenty of tourists come and go. “The ar­rival of the win­ter drives those pseudo-her­mits back to the cities be­cause the cold is ex­tremely tough,” he ob­served. Oth­ers de­velop signs of men­tal ill­ness, mum­bling to un­seen per­sons, seem­ingly driven crazy by the soli­tude.

Al­though much of this “her­mit tourism” was inevitably short-lived and rather fan­ci­ful in na­ture, a few were in­spired to go the dis­tance. Some,

such as Zhou Yu, ed­i­tor of the life­style mag­a­zine Wen­dao (“Seek­ing Way”), which cel­e­brates tra­di­tional cul­ture, tried to phys­i­cally re­trace Porter’s foot­steps. Sev­eral years ago, he trekked through the val­leys and hill paths where Laozi, the myth­i­cal founder of Dao­ism, once roamed, in search of the sage’s mod­ern equiv­a­lent.

Zhou found his Laozi in Ming, a cot­tage-dwelling as­cetic who set­tled on the moun­tain af­ter leav­ing a trou­bled home at 17, first roam­ing the coun­try in search of an­swers, trav­el­ing through Fu­jian, Guang­dong, Jiangxi, and Hubei with only a chipped mug for com­pany, be­fore fi­nally set­tling on Zhong­nan, where he pur­sues an ex­is­tence at once tra­di­tional—read­ing su­tras, tend­ing to the cot­tage—and un­con­ven­tional, own­ing a mo­tor­bike, and some­times shar­ing his lonely quar­ters with a her­mit girl­friend.

Af­ter sev­eral months liv­ing with Ming, Zhou pub­lished Deep in the Clouds《白云深处》( ) in 2011 about the ex­pe­ri­ence, de­scrib­ing Ming’s her­mitage as “a place where he can live a life in which he can face dis­putes peace­fully” and pin­ning much of mod­ern so­ci­ety’s anx­i­ety on hav­ing “too much in­for­ma­tion…and [not] deal­ing with it prop­erly.” On the moun­tain­top, “you have time to think.” Nowa­days, Wen­dao mag­a­zine of­fers week­long “as­cetic trips” for those who don’t need too much time.

A typ­i­cal day be­gins at dawn with gar­den­ing (pulling weeds, plant­ing herbs and veg­eta­bles), chores around the house with tea at noon, and ends with a sim­ple din­ner, then a post­pran­dial walk fol­lowed by med­i­ta­tion be­fore sun­set, when, in the words of Han Shan, “soft grass serves as a mat­tress/my quilt is the dark blue sky/a boul­der makes a fine pil­low.”

Even this bu­colic de­scrip­tion elides the of­ten tough, unglam­orous na­ture of the her­mit’s daily grind. In an in­ter­view with the New York Re­view of Books, Porter de­scribed day-to-day life as mostly “chop­ping fire­wood and haul­ing wa­ter…many peo­ple go in the spring and leave in the au­tumn. They don’t have the spir­i­tual prac­tice to sus­tain them dur­ing the win­ter.”

Worse than hard­ship are the dan­gers, which can some­times be ex­treme: in win­ter, tem­per­a­tures drop be­low mi­nus 20 de­grees Cel­sius, and ev­ery year there are re­ports of some am­a­teur ad­ven­tur­ers freez­ing to death on Zhong­nan. Even for­ag­ing for food can be lethal—the area is home to deadly snakes, as well as poi­sonous fruit and fungi. But that hasn’t stopped new­com­ers from mov­ing to the moun­tain.

“Twenty years ago, there were just a few hun­dred peo­ple [here] but in the last few years, the num­ber has in­creased very quickly,” one part-time her­mit told AFP in 2014. Al­though most of the Daoist shrines

on Zhong­nan were de­stroyed dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, when an­tire­li­gious fer­vor was at its height, sev­eral of the monks who sur­vived the cam­paigns were said to not even be aware of the Com­mu­nist takeover. De­spite this pro­fessed ig­no­rance, pol­i­tics used to play an im­por­tant role in the lives of these moun­tain dwellers. As keep­ers of an­cient thought and values, her­mits were sought out by feu­dal of­fi­cials, who con­sid­ered their ad­vice to be pure of im­pe­rial in­trigue.

The an­cient her­mits were them­selves of­ten priv­i­leged schol­ars who’d fallen out of fa­vor with the regime, like Han Shan, ex­iled to Mount Tiantai in Zhe­jiang prov­ince, forced to make a virtue of their ex­pul­sion (“once you see through tran­sience and il­lu­sion/ the joys of roam­ing free are won­der­ful in­deed” Han claimed). Oth­ers, such as fel­low Tang bard Li Bai, were courtly gentle­men who en­joyed reclu­sion as a form of hol­i­day. They used sim­ple po­etic lan­guage to el­e­vate the mun­dane, el­e­vat­ing the ev­ery­day as eter­nal. But the mod­ern her­mit may not nec­es­sar­ily be a poet, or monk, or even deeply spir­i­tual.

There are now hun­dreds of small dwellings on Zhong­nan, and, by some es­ti­mates, be­tween 3,000 to 5,000 her­mits dot­ted around its peak. Half are women, and most live with­out elec­tric­ity, heat­ing, or meat, sub­sist­ing on roots, herbs, and veg­eta­bles. When they trek fur­ther up the moun­tain for con­tem­pla­tion, jour­neys that can take sev­eral weeks, their diet can be lit­tle more than pine leaves and dew.

Those drawn to the moun­tain path can in­clude grad­u­ates seek­ing en­light­en­ment on the ca­reer path, well-ed­u­cated pro­fes­sion­als, and peo­ple jaded with mod­ern life. Some have read Porter’s book or ar­ti­cles in Wen­dao, or seen one of the doc­u­men­taries about her­mit life, such as 2005’s ac­claimed Amongst White Clouds, di­rected by an Amer­i­can stu­dent who’d dis­cov­ered Buddhism through read­ing Porter.

“When I lived in the city, I par­tied all the time,” one of Ellen Xu’s sub­jects re­calls in her short film about mil­lenial her­mits, Sum­mon­ing the Recluse, de­scrib­ing a typ­i­cal so­cial tread­mill of restau­rant, KTV bars, and card games. “You re­cy­cle the same rou­tine ev­ery day.” By con­trast, his new life was “un­con­strained,” “sim­pler,” with “fewer de­sires.” While some of his fel­low her­mits an­nounced their in­ten­tion to stay in­def­i­nitely, an­other em­pha­sized, “I won’t spend the rest of my life here, that’s for sure.”

Moun­tain life may not suit ev­ery­one wish­ing to es­cape the city or so­ci­ety, but nor is it the only op­tion. Some pre­fer the com­par­a­tive com­forts of a va­ca­tion, or the struc­ture of a re­li­gious or­der. For oth­ers, it’s a sim­ple mat­ter of leav­ing the city, or down­siz­ing. Schol­ars have ar­gued over the “right” way to live alone for cen­turies—han Shan con­sid­ered poets like Li Bai to be shal­low in­ter­lop­ers, call­ing them “mon­keys with those hats/ ap­ing those who shun the dust and wind”—but for the truly en­light­ened, there is no sin­gle path. As Wen­dao’s Zhou Yu said: “Get to know your needs and de­sires, and find a proper po­si­tion…if you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city.”

Deep down, there are those of us who be­lieve that, if we only lived with­out the mod­ern scourges of glob­al­iza­tion, ur­ban­iza­tion and so­cial me­dia, we might be­come en­light­ened stu­dents of Aris­to­tle or Bud­dha. We would be­come one with our “true self,” and close to the ul­ti­mate truth of the uni­verse.

It’s only our deca­dent life­style that pre­vents us from hav­ing that choice. Or so the fan­tasy goes.

In re­cent years, the preva­lence of med­i­ta­tion cour­ses in China have meant that peo­ple no longer have to give up all earthy plea­sures to for a crack at at­tain­ing this kind of in­ner peace. Most of the mod­ern cour­ses are held in monas­ter­ies on scenic moun­tains, where you can wake up to the sound of ring­ing bells and birds chirp­ing, and fall asleep to the sooth­ing rhythm of ci­cadas. You can en­joy a min­i­mal­ist life as en­vis­aged in Henry Thoreau’s Walden, and still have ac­cess to tap wa­ter, elec­tric­ity, and two or three good meals a day.

Most im­por­tantly, par­tic­i­pants will not only be free from foul, loud ur­ban lifestyles, but also the tyranny of the smart­phone—turn­ing in telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions de­vices is usually manda­tory at the start of ev­ery course. (How can you get back to na­ture and ex­pe­ri­ence any en­light­ment with­out a com­plete break from the hyp­no­tized state of phone ad­dic­tion?)

There are many kinds of course, and it’s bet­ter to know the dif­fer­ences be­fore you pick one for your­self. Most in China fall into two gen­res: Bud­dhist and Daoist. The Daoist cour­ses typ­i­cally in­cludes a unique fast­ing method called pigu (辟谷), lit­er­ally “avoid­ing grains,” which, per­haps be­cause of the po­ten­tial risk to its stu­dent’s phys­i­cal con­di­tion, are sel­dom of­fered to the gen­eral pub­lic, at least by Daoist monas­ter­ies. Most med­i­ta­tion cour­ses fea­tur­ing pigu are in­stead con­ducted by com­mer­cial en­ter­prises “con­nected” with TCM and Daoist cul­ture, and are there­fore not rec­om­mended—with few ex­cep­tions, it’s very likely both your wal­let and your body will pay a price.

If you are se­ri­ously into pigu, though, find a re­li­able, ex­pe­ri­enced mas­ter, prefer­ably in a Daoist monastery in Mount Wu­dang or Mount Qingcheng, who might be will­ing to in­struct, and re­mem­ber to never push your body to ex­tremes.

The Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion cour­ses mainly fall into the Chi­nese Bud­dhist and Vi­pas­sana forms of med­i­ta­tion. Al­though many take place in monas­tic sur­round­ings, few are dis­tinctly re­li­gious, but rather in­tended to cul­ti­vate a peace­ful, ob­ser­vant, in­tro­spec­tive mind.

For be­gin­ners, a week­end med­i­ta­tion course in the sub­urbs might suf­fice. Bei­jing’s rep­utable Longquan Monastery (龙泉寺) is one of the sev­eral that of­fer med­i­ta­tion cour­ses dur­ing the year, con­ve­niently con­cen­trated on week­ends, hol­i­days, and through­out the sum­mer. The du­ra­tion varies from two days to a whole week.

“To en­hance your abil­ity to stay cen­tered, con­cen­trated, and calm, you are re­quired to fill up a ta­ble daily that records how many foot­steps you took from your dorm to the ma­jor prayer hall, and how many bites you took at break­fast,” Guo Ran, a reg­u­lar at­ten­dant at the med­i­ta­tion re­treat of Longquan Monastery, tells TWOC. “It is ex­tremely ben­e­fi­cial to the samadhi [a state of union with the di­vine] of your mind. You need to fol­low the rou­tine of the monastery and have con­ver­sa­tions with well-learned monks. No mat­ter the back­grounds of the at­ten­dants, ev­ery­one feel tremen­dously in­spired

and en­light­ened. When the course was over, I re­ally missed it and didn’t want my phone back.”

How­ever, such cour­ses are not for those who de­sire more stern con­di­tions. For most, the ex­pe­ri­ence at Longquan Monastery is quite pam­pered, with or­ganic veg­e­tar­ian meals (some­times fea­tur­ing pizza and dessert), tea, cal­lig­ra­phy, and the com­pany of friends with the same spir­i­tual as­pi­ra­tions, while the dazuo (med­i­ta­tion done with legs folded) ses­sions will not be too de­mand­ing on stiff knees.

For those whose souls crave more soli­tude, there are places that can read­ily take lone­li­ness to a whole new level. Monas­ter­ies that claim a strict lin­eage from an­cient Zen masters fall into this genre: They not only for­bid any phones, but usually any con­ver­sa­tion through­out the course, even read­ing and writ­ing. Un­like at Longquan Monastery, there will not be monks will­ing to dis­cuss life and the uni­verse. The stu­dents’ only task is to pay at­ten­tion to their breath­ing and body, and try to find tran­quil­ity. These ses­sions usually last around 10 days, and re­quire proper com­mit­ment, as leav­ing half­way through is usually enough to get one black­balled from fu­ture cour­ses. Places that of­fer these cour­ses in­clude Erzu Chan Monastery (二祖禅寺), a monastery in Han­dan, He­bei prov­ince, that prides it­self on be­ing founded by the sec­ond mas­ter of the Chi­nese Chan sect, and Gu Guanyin Chan Monastery (古观音禅寺) at the foot of Mount Zhong­nan.

The lat­ter is most fa­mous for a gi­ant, 1,400-year-old gingko tree that takes on a golden hue in De­cem­ber and makes for a spec­tac­u­lar sight. How­ever, it should be bet­ter known for its stern med­i­ta­tion cour­ses. Fol­low­ing the pe­cu­liar Chi­nese Chan tra­di­tion, those who lose their up­right pos­ture dur­ing dazuo— an in­di­ca­tion of ab­sent-mind­ed­ness—will re­ceive a heavy slap of the xi­ang­ban (香板,a long, thin board) on their shoul­der, bring­ing their minds back to task.

Fi­nally, for those who seek still more chal­leng­ing con­di­tions to re­dis­cover their true self, Vi­pas­sana med­i­ta­tion (内观禅修) cen­ters are the lat­est trend in fash­ion­able med­i­ta­tion. The method claims to have an­cient In­dian roots, thou­sands of years older than Buddhism it­self, but the most im­por­tant canon it draws on is Bud­dhaghosa’s “Path of Pu­rifi­ca­tion,” a fifth-cen­tury work of Ther­avada Buddhism doc­trine.

Most Vi­pas­sana med­i­ta­tion is known for its stern sched­ule, with stints on the med­i­ta­tion mat of up to eight hours a day, and a path to con­tin­u­ous con­cen­tra­tion on the in­ner world full of phys­i­cal and men­tal agony. For an au­then­tic ex­pe­ri­ence, med­i­ta­tion cen­ters es­tab­lished by mod­ern Vi­pas­sana teacher S. N. Goenka are rec­om­mended. Here, the sur­round­ings and tech­niques are not dis­tinctly Bud­dhist, but pur­port to erad­i­cate men­tal im­pu­ri­ties and cul­ti­vate self-aware­ness. How­ever, Goenka’s cen­ters in China are cur­rently only open to those of Chi­nese na­tion­al­ity.

To get a Ther­avada ex­pe­ri­ence, Dham­mav­i­hārī For­est Monaster (法住禅林), in the depth of the Xishuang­banna rain­for­est, is cer­tainly an al­ter­na­tive.

At their core, all these cour­ses of­fer the same thing: a pe­riod of time in which each par­tic­i­pant is com­pelled to do noth­ing but qui­etly sit with him or her­self. It might seem a lot of trou­ble to go to just in or­der to stop hid­ing from one­self, but then again, that’s es­sen­tially what her­mits want.

Wu Lixin needed wa­ter­mel­ons. As the lead­ing of­fi­cial for a hand­ful of nut­meg­farm­ing vil­lages in moun­tain­ous cen­tral Zhe­jiang, Wu knew it was lo­cal cour­tesy to of­fer re­fresh­ments to any vis­i­tors that pass his way. But for the first time in re­cent mem­ory, Wu had to get ex­tra fruit shipped from an­other county: There were too many peo­ple to feed.

On July 15, more than 500 vis­i­tors, from cities as far as Bei­jing and Sanya, traipsed up the wind­ing paths to Wu’s moun­tain­top ham­lets—hun­dreds of me­ters above sea level, ac­ces­si­ble only by steep, sin­gle-lane dirt roads—in re­sponse to a re­mark­able lo­cal cam­paign. Spear­headed by the tourism bu­reau of Sandu town, the “Be­come a Moun­tain-dweller” pi­lot ini­tia­tive of­fers an ir­re­sistible deal to ur­ban res­i­dents fed up with China’s over­heated prop­erty mar­ket and ca­cophonous cities: Eight va­cant “dwellings” (in­clud­ing two aban­doned schools and a tract of un­used land) in Sandu’s back­coun­try, rent-free, to ur­ban in­vestors or en­trepreneurs will­ing to find the best use of them.

In all, over 700 peo­ple came to view these alpine prop­er­ties, though ul­ti­mately, only 14 ap­pli­ca­tions were good enough to make the gov­ern­ment’s short­list. Many, it tran­spired, were sim­ply there for the scenery, or try the lo­cal pro­duce, and en­joy the nov­elty of “dis­cov­er­ing” a des­ti­na­tion off the beaten path. But to those who are now stake­hold­ers in Sandu’s suc­cess, that’s a good enough start.

Wang Ai­juan, one of the fi­nal­ists, says her in­ter­est in moun­tain liv­ing was fore­shad­owed by a num­ber of events af­ter grad­u­at­ing from the China Acad­emy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou five years ago. “I have been work­ing on the cre­ative side of ‘beau­ti­ful coun­try­side’ projects,” she says, re­fer­ring to the 2013 Com­mu­nist Party cam­paign to pre­serve China’s his­toric vil­lages and de­velop lo­cal in­dus­tries, “but I have two class­mates, my child­hood friends, who moved back to the coun­try­side to start a wed­ding busi­ness, and I’ve been en­vi­ous—it’s a beau­ti­ful en­vi­ron­ment, and I feel like there is real beauty to what they do.”

The three friends to­gether ap­plied to lease a 100-year-old wooden home in Daku, one of sev­eral vil­lages as­signed to the Sandu project, as a stu­dio—a sanc­tu­ary from stress, where they can hole up, re­lax, and cre­ate. What caught lo­cal of­fi­cials’ eye in their ap­pli­ca­tion, how­ever, were the crisp Pow­er­point slides that out­lined worldlier as­pi­ra­tions: The trio want to run the prop­erty as a part-time art school, bou­tique guest­house, or­ganic kitchen, and e-com­merce work­shop, where lo­cal farm­ers can learn how to mar­ket their pro­duce on­line.

In the early 2000s, Amer­i­can so­cial sci­en­tist Richard Florida fa­mously ob­served that pro­fes­sion­als he called the “cre­ative class” were driv­ing the re­vi­tal­iza­tion of ur­ban neigh­bor­hoods in the United States. In China, where it’s ru­ral com­mu­ni­ties that are cur­rently threat­ened with

aban­don­ment and blight, Florida’s pre­dic­tions are no less true: From Dali in Yun­nan prov­ince to the river ham­lets in south­ern An­hui, fea­tured in the Pulitzer Cen­ter’s 2014 doc­u­men­tary Down to the Coun­try­side, the ar­rival of bo­hemian artists and mu­si­cians in China’s back­coun­try has typ­i­cally her­alded a boom in mid­dle­class “smog refugees,” tourists, and trendy busi­nesses cater­ing to both, since the 1990s. In the doc­u­men­tary, Bei­jing art cu­ra­tor Ou Ning, an ac­tivist in­volved with the his­tor­i­cal preser­va­tion and cul­tural devel­op­ment of an An­hui vil­lage, said the move­ment was “turn­ing on its head” the no­tion that “a suc­cess­ful life could only hap­pen in the city.”

Ou es­ti­mated there were more than 200 projects on the main­land fo­cused on re­al­lo­cat­ing ur­ban re­sources— peo­ple, busi­nesses, pro­fes­sional ex­per­tise, as well as fund­ing—to lead the eco­nomic and cul­tural devel­op­ment of the coun­try­side. These are not new ideas: The projects echo both the Re­pub­lic of China’s Ru­ral Re­con­struc­tion Move­ment, when in­tel­lec­tu­als headed to the vil­lages to ed­u­cate farm­ers and strengthen the na­tion, as well as Chair­man Mao’s call for youths to be “sent-down” to the “re­mote and fron­tier realms of the moth­er­land” dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion, so they and the peas­ant classes could sup­pos­edly learn the values of rev­o­lu­tion from each other.

But many of to­day’s young idealists aren’t head­ing to the hills to fur­ther na­tion­al­ism or class strug­gle—just the op­po­site, in fact. Whether it’s for a re­li­gious re­treat, a call to as­cetism, or sim­ply an urge to re­lo­cate some­where quiet with good scenery, China’s new her­mits are mak­ing con­scious choices to give up the con­ven­tions of mod­ern ex­is­tence—fam­ily, ca­reer, the prop­erty lad­der—with an em­pha­sis on in­di­vid­ual free­dom and per­sonal growth. “Our ideal is to cre­ate a life­style with sim­ple ma­te­rial wants,” Wang ex­plains. “It’s be­cause this place is re­mote from the bus­tle of the city that the lo­cals have been able to live a life of self-suf­fi­ciency, sat­is­fied with just three good meals a day; our spir­its can be free of mun­dane cares.”

For the res­i­dents of Sandu’s moun­tain vil­lages, there’s no rea­son why this new­found en­thu­si­asm for the ru­ral life can­not be con­verted into a mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial busi­ness ar­range­ment, though of­fi­cials em­pha­size this is in no way a cash grab. “The free hous­ing is a sign of good faith: It says that we’re not fo­cused on mak­ing money, but sim­ply us­ing our ad­van­tages to at­tract out­side re­sources, which could lead the eco­nomic devel­op­ment of the en­tire re­gion,” says Yu Aix­i­ang, party sec­re­tary of Wu’s neigh­bor­ing Qianyuan vil­lage. The 20- mu cam­pus (1 mu equals about 666 square me­ters) of a pri­mary school (plus a 100- mu for­est at­tached), aban­doned since 2011 due to low en­roll­ment, is one of the prop­er­ties Qianyuan has on of­fer.

It’s also a strat­egy to al­le­vi­ate the so­cial malaise that, for all of Ou or Wang’s rhap­sodiz­ing, is part of an epi­demic hol­low­ing out China’s vil­lages. “At night there’d be kids who’d break the [school’s] win­dows and van­dal­ize it; in sum­mer, when there’s no farm­ing, our peo­ple have noth­ing to do but play cards or fight each other over land dis­tri­bu­tion.

TO­DAY'S YOUNG IDEALISTS AREN'T HEAD­ING TO THE HILLS TO FUR­THER NA­TION­AL­IST OR CLASS STRUG­GLE—JUST THE OP­PO­SITE, IN FACT

Host­ing tourists lets us do some­thing pro­duc­tive,” Yu ex­plains.

Still, com­mer­cial­iza­tion seems in­evitable. Yu has been con­tacted about turn­ing the site into a teapro­cess­ing plant, re­tire­ment home, or even lofts to be sub­leased to artists and film­mak­ers. Due to the size of “moun­tain dwellings” like Qianyuan Pri­mary School, as well as a 50- mu va­cant lot in an­other vil­lage, the prop­er­ties are not just at­tract­ing in­di­vid­ual ap­pli­cants seek­ing a se­cluded spot to run a guest­house, con­tem­plate Zen Buddhism, and make model air­planes (al­though there are many of those).

Cor­po­rate in­vestors are also swoop­ing in, in­clud­ing film stu­dios, “agri-tourism” busi­nesses, and busi­ness­men like Ye Wen, CEO of the Hangzhou Tex­tile Ma­chin­ery Cor­po­ra­tion, who was among the fi­nal­ists. Ye wants Qianyuan Pri­mary School to serve as a satel­lite cam­pus for Jing­wei Park, a cre­ative in­dus­try hub in Hangzhou in the style of Bei­jing’s 798, con­verted from for­mer fac­to­ries in Ye’s cor­po­ra­tion.

“We’ve been specif­i­cally look­ing for a place that’s in a nat­u­ral set­ting, that’s re­moved from the bus­tle of the city, where we can both have de­sign­ers-in­res­i­dence com­ing to cre­ate and weary trav­el­ers who just want to re­lax,” Ye ex­plains by phone. “That’s the irony of our times, isn’t it? Ev­ery­body from the vil­lages want to leave, but in the city, once peo­ple reach a cer­tain eco­nomic stan­dard, all they want to do is get away.

“So we’ll cap­ture that mar­ket,” he says.

The last stages of the con­test will take place in late Au­gust and Septem­ber, when fi­nal­ists are in­vited for a series of pre­sen­ta­tions and in­ter­views with lo­cal gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials and the prop­er­ties’ orig­i­nal own­ers; Yu pre­dicts, how­ever, that those who don’t make the cut may be of­fered other va­cant homes in the area, as de­mand has far out­stripped ex­pec­ta­tions and there is plenty of aban­doned prop­erty to go around.

Just across the river from Sandu, a high-speed rail con­nec­tion is also sched­uled for next year, which in­vestors like Ye are count­ing on to bring a tourist in­flux to these re­mote re­gions still lack­ing pub­lic tran­sit. On the other hand, Wang is of­fer­ing the op­po­site ex­pe­ri­ence: “mini moun­tain her­mit” tour pack­ages from her hill­top abode. Ac­cord­ing to her busi­ness plan, it will be geared to­ward mid­dle-class tourists who “have the eco­nomic re­sources as well as will­ing­ness to in­vest in the self…to de­fine their own style of liv­ing in the semi-soli­tude of the moun­tains.”

To at­tract this po­ten­tial clien­tele, ren­o­va­tions will go be­yond the ba­sic home im­prove­ments for her stu­dio. She has to look for an­other in­vestor to back her in this next phase. “The harder the place is to get to,” Wang ex­plains, “the more peo­ple will cher­ish the ex­pe­ri­ence.”

“EV­ERY­BODY FROM THE VIL­LAGES WANT TO LEAVE, BUT IN THE CITY, ONCE PEO­PLE REACH A CER­TAIN ECO­NOMIC STAN­DARD, ALL THEY WANT TO DO IS GET AWAY”

Wang Zhi de­picted watch­ing Go at Mount Lanke, Zhe­jiang

Not all her­mits go to the moun­tains—this ur­ban- dweller in Foshan, Guang­dong, finds tran­quil­ity in his tree­house

A her­mit cook­ing food out­side his cave dwelling on He­nan's Wangwu Moun­tain

Daku, a moun­tain­top ham­let ac­ces­si­ble only by a dirt road, wants to be­come a tourist des­ti­na­tion

Fish­ing is still a part of ru­ral liveli­hoods in this part of Zhe­jiang, though in some vil­lages, they are merely props for the de­light of tourists

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