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China Recluse Culture


References to yinshi (隐士, recluses) an interesting but somewhat strange group of elites in Chinese history, can be found in many historical records. A yinshi recluse refers to an intellectual who opted to lead a life distant from politics, even though his talent and qualification could well secure an official post for him. He would live from the land (farming, hunting, selling herbs, etc.), indulge himself in the beauty and inspiration nature has to offer, or lead a scholarly existence (teaching, studying and writing). In short, he declined an official career and preferred instead a simple life.
 
China Recluse Culture, China Ancient Culture

A yinshi recluse is an intellectual who opted to stay distanced from a political career.

 

Confucianism, the prevailing national ideology of ancient China, encourages intellectuals to actively participate in state management. While most intellectuals followed this doctrine, a minority group adopted the reclusive lifestyle by distancing themselves from politics. Some of them, for example Zong Bing (Eastern Jin to Song Dynasties) Wu Zhen (Yuan Dynasty) and Shen Zhou (Ming Dynasty), were too fascinated with a carefree reclusive life to seek an official employment, declined the government offer, and remained aloof from the bureaucratic world for a lifetime. More recluses had served as an official before they retreated into a reclusive life, as they found it rather undesirable to seek a political career at the cost of their own freedom. Tao Yuanming (Eastern Jin Dynasty), the representative of ancient China’s recluse culture, is the most typical example of this group. In his signature literary work The Return (归去来兮辞 gui qu lai xi ci), he shared his exhilaration of having freed himself from the bondage of official undertakings and coming back to enjoy the pleasure of a simple, close-to-nature life. Other representatives of his kind include Wen Zhengming (Ming Dynasty).
 
 
China Recluse Culture, China Ancient CultureChina Recluse Culture, China Ancient Culture

Confucianism encourages intellectuals to actively participate in state management.

Tao Yuanming, the representative of China recluse culture.

 
 
Some yinshi recluses were less determined, and alternated between reclusion and bureaucracy. Dong Qichang (late Ming Dynasty), for instance, took official positions whenever the political climate became favourable and retreated into reclusion whenever unfavourable. Dong’s indetermination may also be associated with his painting style which features ambiguous strokes. More examples include Yi Ying (Shang Dynasty), Zhuge Liang (Later Han Dynasty), and Liu Ji (Yuan-Ming Dynasties), who remained recluses until they were persuaded into taking official posts. Wang Wei, one of the top poets of Tang Dynasty, was not satisfied with life in the bureaucratic circles, but went on serving his official posts anyway as the salaries there were, after all, handsome. However, Wang’s poetry often reflects his strong inclination towards a reclusive lifestyle.
 
 
China Recluse Culture, China Ancient Culture

Long Zhong Dui 隆中对

Zhuge Liang, prime minister of Su during the Three Kingdoms Period, had used to be a yinshi recluse, tilling land and teaching in the countryside of Nanyang, before being pursuaded to serve as senior military consultant to Liu Bei.

 
 

For Chinese intellectuals, reclusion represents an alternative way of life as against a bureaucratic career, though they opted for the latter for certain reasons. Compared with the political life which meant much undertaking, responsibility, and risks, the recluse culture manifested the intellectuals’ longing for individual freedom as is often closely associated with Chinese Taoism. And perhaps thanks to this freedom enabled by reclusion, many recluses had great achievements in Chinese elite culture: literature, painting, music, calligraphy, philosophy, academic studies, etc.


 

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