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