SHAMANISM AND MOUNTAIN HERMITS IN CHINA

SHAMANISM IN CHINA

20080219-shaman manchu_sjaman China, Three Emporers, 2006  crystalpun.png
Manchu shaman in the early 20th century
Shamanism is China's oldest indigenous belief system. It is still widely practiced in villages and even cities, especially during times of ritual transition and crisis. Shaman rituals are performed on mountaintops, at traditional shrines and in village homes.

Shaman are people who have visions and perform various deeds while in a trance and are believed to have the power to control spirits in the body and leave everyday existence and travel or fly to other worlds. The word Shaman means "agitated or frenzied person" in the language of the Manchu-Tungus nomads of Siberia and northern China.

Shaman are viewed as bridges between their communities and the spiritual world. During their trances, which are usually induced in some kind of ritual, shaman seek the help of spirits to do things like cure illnesses, bring about good weather, predict the future, or communicate with deceased ancestors. Shaman have traditionally had a serious illness followed by a a deep religious experience before they become shaman.

Shaman are generally poor and come from the lower social classes. Sometimes their spiritual power is seen as so great that they need to be separated from society. In the past, it is believed, almost all villages had a shaman and they were members of a caste that passed their traditions down from generation to generation. Some shaman are afraid to reveal their secrets because they believe that after they pass on their secrets the shaman will die.

Good Websites and Sources: Traditional Religion in China: Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Deities Worshipped by Farmers China Vista ; Mazu China Vista ; Video: “Ancestor Worship, Confucian Teaching, featuring Myron L. Cohen Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu; Feng shui Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Feng Shui Crazy fengshuicrazy.comfengshuisociety.org ;Skeptic’s Dictionary on Feng Shui skepdic.com ; Qi Gong Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Classical text sources neigong.net ; Qi Gong Institute qigonginstitute.org ; Qi Gong association of America /www.qi.org ; Skeptic’s Dictionary on Qi Gong skepdic.com

Folk Beliefs and Superstitions: Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; New York Times on Earthquake superstitions nytimes.com ; Old Book on Superstitions archive.org/ or Old Book PDF Fileus.archive.org/2/items ; Five Elements chinatownconnection ; I Ching Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; China Vista chinavista.com ; Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu;

Funerals and Death: Chinese Beliefs About Death deathreference.com ; Death and Burials in China chia.chinesemuseum.com.au ; Grief in China Culture www.indiana.edu ; Chinese Funeral Customs China Vista; Lucky Numbers Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; New York Times article nytimes.com ; China View article xinhuanet.com ; News in Science abc.net.au ; Symbols Chinese Symbols. Com chinese-symbols.com ; Chinatown Connection chinatownconnection.com ; What’s Your Sign whats-your-sign.com

Good Websites and Sources on Religion in China: Chinese Government White Paper on Religion china-embassy.org ; United States Commission on International Religious Freedom uscirf.gov/countries/china; Articles on Religion in China forum18.org ; Wikipedia article Wikipedia ; Council of Foreign Relations cfr.org ; Brooklyn College brooklyn.cuny.edu ; Religion Facts religionfacts.com; Religious Tolerance religioustolerance.org ; Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy stanford.edu ; Academic Info academicinfo.net ; Internet Guide to Chinese Studies sino.uni-heidelberg.de

Books: 1) James Watson and Evelyn Rawski, eds., “Death Ritual in Late Imperial and Modern China” (Berkeley, 1988); 2) the chapter by Maurice Freedman in “The Study of Chinese Society,” ed. G. William Skinner (Stanford, 1979), pp. 296-312; 3) Laurence Thompson, “Chinese Religion” (Belmont, 1979), Chapter 3; 4) C. K. Yang, “Religion in Chinese Society” (Berkeley, 1961), pp. 40-43, 52-53; 5) Henri Doré (1914-1933), “Researches into Chinese Superstitions,” trans. M. Kennelly, 6 vols. (Shanghai), vol. 4, pp. 417 ff.]; 5) Addison, James Thayer. “Chinese Ancestor Worship: A Study of its Meaning and its Relations with Christianity” (London: The Church Literature Committee of the Chung Hua Sheng Kung Hui, 1925); 6) Graham, David Crockett. “Folk Religion in Southwest China” (Washington: The Smithsonian Institution, 1961); Hsu, Francis L. K. “Under the Ancestor’s Shadow” (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1971). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Ancient Texts and Shamanism in China


Human burial and shell mosaic

Ancient historical texts described shamanist rituals in southern China in the forth century B.C. that honored mountain and river goddesses and local heros with erotic ceremonies that climaxed with fornication with the gods. The following poem describes such a ritual, performed by men and women shaman, who wore colorful clothes and doused themselves in perfume:
Strike the bells until the bell-stand rocks!
Let the flutes sound! Blow the pan-pipes!
See, the priestess, how skilled and lovely!
Whirling and dipping like birds in flight...
I aim my long arrow and shoot the Wolf of heaven;
I seize the Dipper to ladle cinnamon wine.
Then holding my reins I plunge down to my setting.

According to a 4th century B.C. Chinese text Discourses of the State, "Ancient men and spirits did not intermingle. At that time there were certain persons who were so perspicacious, single-minded and reverential that their understanding enabled them to make meaningful collation of what lies above and below and their insight [enabled them] to illuminate what is distant and profound Therefore the spirits would descend into them."

"The possessors of such power were, if men call xi, and if women, wu," the text continued. "It is they who supervised the positions of the spirits at the ceremonies, sacrificed to them, and otherwise handled religious matters...as a consequence the spheres of the divine and the profane were kept distinct. The spirits sent down blessing on the people, an accepted from them offerings. There were no natural calamities."

Becoming a Shaman and Shaman Techniques


monkey leather shaman hat

Shaman can be both men and women. Many are women. Traditionally, they have not chosen to become shaman but rather had shamanism thrust upon them. The process of becoming a shaman usually follows five steps: 1) a break with life as usual; 2) a journey to an "other world;" 3) dying and being reborn: 4) gaining a new vision: 5) and emerging with a deep sense of connectedness and purpose.

Most shaman begin their careers with a life-threatening illness, during which time they embark on a spiritual journey and communicate with the gods, spirits and ancestors that become the source of their powers. After recovering from the illness, they go through a long period of training, characterized by fasts and hardships and instruction from senior shaman that climaxes with a long period of isolation in which the shaman goes without food and experiences more visions.

Ancient shaman likely used jade ornaments with divine markings to command mystical forces and communicate with gods and ancestors. Ancient Chinese believed that there ancestors originated with God and communicated through supernatural beings and symbols, whose images were placed on jade ornaments.

The status of individuals in ancient China was determined by the perceived degree of his or her association with the supernatural. Ancient li rituals were used to communicate with spirits and promote harmonious relations in society. These tituals were held at ancestral shrines and meetings with rulers and vassals.

Shaman in an Inner Mongolia Mining Town


shaman drum

Reporting from Xi Wuqi city in Inner Mongolia, Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Erdemt is a 54-year-old former herder (who, like many Mongolians, only goes by one name), and as a shaman, he is considered an intermediary between the human and spiritual worlds. Although he is new to the role – he became a shaman in 2009 – thousands of people, all of them ethnically Mongolian, have visited so that he could decipher nightmares, proffer moral guidance and cure mysterious ills. His patients pay him as much as they wish.[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“Erdemt's hometown Xi Wuqi, a city of 70,000 flush against the grasslands, was built to help sustain the mining boom. The tiny Han-owned boutiques that line its broad, well-paved thoroughfares are so new that their interiors smell like fresh paint. Five years ago, its residents say, it was little more than a cluster of one-storey red-brick homes. ^^^

“Shamanism is among the world's oldest religions, dating back as far as the paleolithic era, and many of Erdemt's clients see him as an embodiment of a timeless order that was devastated by the boom. "In the past, living a pastoral life was the purest way to be in touch with nature – to absorb its energy," said Nisu Yila, a professional Mongolian wrestler in Xi Wuqi, as he sat on the shaman's living room couch wearing a traditional deel robe and a cowboy hat. "But bit by bit, that kind of life began to disappear. And we began to panic." The shaman, he said, reminds him of what China's Mongolians have lost. "He's like a short cut," he said. ^^^

Experts say that this sentiment – the desire to reconnect with a forgotten past – is nearly ubiquitous in China, a natural byproduct of rapid change. "Because of modernisation, and now urbanisation, traditional culture is vanishing and being replaced by western culture, and under such conditions, people realise that these things are worth protecting," said Tian Qing , the head of the Chinese Intangible Cultural Heritage Protection Centre and a prominent adviser to the government on cultural affairs. "Right now, Chinese society is like a pot of soup, and it's boiling over the top. Have you ever cooked? You think that's not going to hurt you? People here get psychological problems. There's pressure. There's difficulty. And so they look towards religion for comfort." Tian quoted a Tang dynasty poem to underscore his point: "Even a prairie fire can't destroy the grass; it just grows again when the spring breeze blows." ^^^

Shaman Ritual in Inner Mongolia Mining Town


Mongolian shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “The shaman of Xi Wuqi city wakes before sunrise on a Wednesday morning in June, piles his family into his silver Peugeot, and drives out beyond the city's boxy mid-rises, past miles of strip-mines and coal refineries, and to the foot of a broad kelly-green hillside on the grasslands. He hikes to the top, removes his trainers and button-down shirt, and dons a black robe and a feather headdress. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“Then he gets to work. The hill is on the shaman's ancestral land, and he climbs it once a year to summon his ancestors; to express his desires, and to hear their demands. For the two hours he delivers a thunderous performance, rife with drum-beating, horn-blowing, the jingle of bells and the clanging of cymbals. His wife and son scatter sheep's milk and rice liquor beneath variegated prayer flags. They throw handfuls of confetti to the wind. ^^^

"I saw a spirit riding a white horse with a flowing mane, and he told me right now, your ability as a shaman, your energy, your magic, they've improved very quickly," the shaman said that afternoon, sitting in his two-bedroom apartment chain-smoking cigarettes, a Chinese news broadcast running mute on his flatscreen TV. "He said right now, you've already arrived – you can commune with the spirit of any river, or any mountain." ^^^

“While Erdemt's social role may be timeless, his professional duties – the therapy-like sessions and ebullient rituals – are inexorably modern. He provides solace to white-collar job seekers and helps local officials assess the spiritual implications of approving new mines. He understands that there are lines he cannot cross. ^^^

Becoming an Inner Mongolia Shaman

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, Erdemt “knew nothing of shamanism as a child. He spent his formative years in a felt-lined tent on the grasslands, frequently skipping school to help his parents herd. During Mao's Cultural Revolution, the religion was dubbed "feudal superstition" and banned. One of his neighbours was beaten for practising it openly, and decades of silence followed suit. [Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

The shaman grew to middle age. He married and had two children, both of whom learned to rear sheep before they were packed off to university. The coal boom came suddenly, and in 2007, his pastures began to wilt; a summer hailstorm decimated his livestock. Newly destitute, he considered his options and moved to Xi Wuqi, where he found a part-time job unloading trucks. His wife bought buckets of sheep's milk and processed it into dried yogurt, a traditional Mongolian snack, which she sold to local markets. They were desperate to return to the grasslands. ^^^

“Around that time, Erdemt began to have strange dreams, he says. Some involved tigers; in one, snakes writhed around his body. He discovered within himself an extraordinary aptitude for prediction, allowing him to foretell chance encounters with old friends. One day in 2009, he quit his job and took a bus to Ordos, a gleaming new city in the area's arid west which, like Xi Wuqi, was built to accommodate the coal boom. There, amid empty skyscrapers and vast, dusty boulevards, he met a friend whose brother owned a brick factory in Mongolia; the brother knew a master shaman in the country's capital, Ulan Bator. Erdemt applied for a passport, hopped on a cross-border train, and showed up at the shaman's house carrying his suitcases. For 27 days, he memorised ancient texts and fine-tuned elaborate rituals; he returned to Xi Wuqi carrying a sheepskin drum, confident about his future. The decision has served him well, he says. Moving back to the grasslands is no longer a priority.” ^^^

Perils and Attraction of Being an Inner Mongolia Shaman


Mongolian shaman gear

Jonathan Kaiman wrote in The Guardian, “Despite his success, Erdemt's status as a shaman in China is uniquely precarious. He's an emerging religious figure in an officially atheist state, an expression of ethnic pride amid roiling ethnic tensions, and an embodiment of the distant past in a rapidly changing present. His China is one of resource extraction, mass migration and cultural upheaval. It is a constant exercise in compromise and restraint.”[Source: Jonathan Kaiman, The Guardian, September 23, 2013 ^^^]

“"The government, they don't formally acknowledge me the way they acknowledge other religions," he says. "But as long as I don't do anything illegal – or at least, what they'd consider illegal – they won't limit me." Pamphlets and broadcasts are strictly out of bounds. Although he's careful to couch his ethnic sentiments in benign terms, he refuses to see Han clients. Most of them see his services as an investment, he says. They're angered by weak returns. ^^^

“Erdemt's son Bao Lidao, a bespectacled 26-year-old with ruddy cheeks and an explosive laugh, is experiencing a quarter-life crisis. After graduating from university in the region's capital city, Hohhot, Bao took a government job mediating between land-hungry railway ministry officials and the nomads they sought to displace. The position overwhelmed him. The nomads were fickle – they'd be seduced by sizable compensation packages one day and reticent the next, aware that the cash was, unlike their land, ephemeral. Last year, he took a secretarial job with the Xi Wuqi government, and he finds the position stultifying. "These people, although they drive good cars, they eat well, they live well, they wear nice things – I feel their hearts are empty," he said. ^^^

“Bao wants to be a shaman – for weeks in a row he'll dream of flying, which he takes as a cosmic sign. Yet his father, like so many in China, is a pragmatist. "He thinks it'd be best if I find my own career," said Bao. "Even if I don't become a shaman, I'll still be a shaman's son, and I'll dedicate myself to researching shamanism, developing the field. I think this is my life's mission." ^^^

Shaman in Taiwan

Jonathan Adams of New York Times met with Chang Tin a jitong, or Taiwanese shaman who dispenses advice while said to be possessed by a spirit, inside a modern office building next to Taipei’s bustling main train station. In the past, such shamans played a central role in rural village life. Based in local temples, they would resolve community disputes and pick auspicious dates for important occasions, and they were believed to help heal the sick by channeling spirits. [Source:Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

“In the U.S. or the West, people go to a psychologist,” said one 40-year-old man seek help from Chang told the New York Times,”The jitong plays the same role. In Taiwan, we think going to a psychologist feels a bit strange. A psychologist is just a person, but this is a god. I can say anything to a god, but I can’t say everything to a psychologist.” [Ibid]

Most often, Chang said, she is possessed by Ji Gong, a maverick Buddhist monk who lived in China in the 12th century and loved his meat and liquor. Thus, the cans of beer as offerings on the altar and Chang’s slurred speech as she channeled the tipsy monk. Another popular god is Santaizi (literally, the third prince), the youngest son of a Tang Dynasty general who has a third eye and boundless energy. But she says other spirits, including Jesus, can speak through her. [Ibid]

“I usually ask Ji Gong to answer peoples” questions, she said. When I start the ritual, I need to dress in Ji Gong’s clothes and drink alcohol, because Ji Gong likes it.” She says she does not remember anything that happens while possessed by the spirits.” My assistant helps me, recording everything I say and telling me what I did,” she said. [Ibid]

In an interview, Chang said that the spirits called her to be a jitong; she did not choose it. “When I was 6, I asked my mother why there were people walking in the sky through the clouds, she said. They didn’t blame me or think I was seeing things; they bought a book with pictures of holy beings and asked me which ones I’d seen.” When she was 12, a Taoist priest began teaching her the ways of the jitong during summer and winter school breaks. At 15, she said, she was capable of being possessed. She completed vocational school and held jobs in a hospital and in sales, but she said the spirits kept pestering her to be a jitong and to deliver their messages. A few years ago she did. [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual in Taiwan

20111125-aisa obscura taoist  gods atdongyue-temple-13.jpg
Taoist demons at Dongyue Temple
One Sunday a month Chang invites those contacts to her office for an openspirit medium session. The day that Adams visited she answered petitioners’ questions as several elderly men lounged nearby on pillows and chairs, watching the proceedings. Children ran in and out of the room. Chang’s assistants bustled around in the office and an attached kitchen, lighting joss sticks, washing dishes, tending to accounts. Her office door remained open, with about 15 waiting visitors and passers-by chatting and eating in the outside hallway. As clients knelt on pillows before her and aired their troubles, Chang was by turns marriage counselor, family therapist and psychotherapist. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Describing a shaman ritual, Adams wrote in New York Times, “After 10 minutes of drum-beating and incense-burning by her assistants, Chang Yin donned a black, spotted robe and a pointed hat. She picked up a fan with her right hand and a silver flask of sorghum liquor with her left...Then, she sat in a chair before an altar piled with joss sticks, cans of beer, fruit, other snacks and images of deities. The session began. She appeared to slip into a trance.” [Ibid]

“A visibly relaxed Chang, as Ji Gong, was cracking jokes, sipping liquor, hiccuping, waving a fan, teasing questioners, scolding a child and in general thoroughly enjoying the experience and putting everyone at ease. [Ibid]

The questioners all listened calmly, letting Ji Gong do most of the talking. i Gong assured one troubled woman who had recently lost a baby that the child was doing well on the other side. Give me your heart, and I’ll open it, Ji Gong told the woman, using a Chinese phrase for giving happiness. The woman put her hand to her heart and then extended it to the shaman..”That’s not your heart, that’s your hand,” Ji Gong said, chuckling mischievously. “I was just kidding; only you can open your heart, Ji Gong said. If you want to open it, just open it. You think too much.” [Ibid]

Another time, Ji Gong gave specific advice to a couple and their young son, repeat visitors. To the wife, he said, “Your husband’s not gentle enough, as usual, and gently upbraided the man.” Then Ji Gong had another message: “Your son wants to ask you for money, but he’s afraid to. He wants money for an online game; he’s been trying so hard to overcome an obstacle, but he needs a weapon. Just give him 100 dollars or 200 dollars.” (Those sums, in Taiwanese dollars, are equivalent to about $3 or $6.) [Ibid]

Shaman Ritual Adapted to 21st Century

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Taoist demon at Dongyue Temple
Ting Jen-chieh, a specialist in Taiwanese religion at the Institute of Ethnology at the Academia Sinica in Taipei, told the New York Times that forty years ago, shamanistic ceremonies were still a frequent feature of village temples, with jitong playing an important public role. Now, Ting said, few young Taiwanese are interested in becoming jitong. Many older people who carry on the shaman tradition have switched to private practice, often in cities, operating out of homes, storefronts or offices rather than temples. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

In the southern Taiwanese village that Ting has been studying, there were eight jitong in the 1960s. Now there are none. Before, jitong were seen as performing a public service, Ting said. But now, as people have become more educated, they’ve come to think the practice isn’t scientific, that it’s uncivilized. But if jitong are less visible, the underlying beliefs that prevailed when Taiwan was a predominantly poor, rural society are surprisingly resilient. The problems they are called upon to solve have changed, too: there are fewer village-level quarrels, more questions on marital disharmony or workplace setbacks. [Ibid]

Chang is one of a small number of people who aremaintaining the shamanistic practice but adapting it to the needs of modern city dwellers. Chang does not charge for the jitong services. She teaches classes, and most of her income derives from advising businesses on feng shui and other such matters. To keep her clients abreast of what is happening she regularly sends out text messages to about 300 people. That virtual network has replaced the tightly knit village setting of old. [Ibid]

Chang said it was not only the jitong who had adjusted. She said that these days the gods were more likely to be consulted on thorny personal relationships than on physical illness. So now they give a different type of guidance, she said. The gods have changed along with the times and kept up with the trends. [Source: Jonathan Adams, New York Times, December 6, 2008]

Hermits and Chinese Religion


Hermit fisherman on Lake Dongting by Yuan painter Wu Zhen

Hermits have lived in the mountains since ancient times. There are Taoist and Buddhist ones as well as one ones with closer affiliations to traditional Chinese folk religion. But they are not limited to Taoists or Buddhists. Poets, political figures and average people have also been hermits. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

Hermits are "unique images that ancient Chinese culture has nurtured. [They] represent Chinese people's pursuit of an ideal way of life," the writer Zhou Yu told the Global Times. "Their lifestyle is completely self-supporting, without demanding too much from the outside world....For hermits, to live a secluded life and practice Daoism or Buddhism is not solely about 'benevolence,' but living a real, simple life---What they do is to make their heart bright, clear and natural," explained Zhou, who is also editor of Wendao (Seeking Way), a magazine dedicated to promoting traditional Chinese culture. [Ibid]

AFP reported: "Today's hermits are following a well-beaten historical path, and experts say quiet types have preferred to live alone in the mountains of China for more than 3,000 years. Unlike their Western equivalents, religiously inspired outsiders who often shunned society completely, China's mountain dwellers have historically been sought out by politicians. "Hermits played a political role, they pushed society forward and maintained ancient ideas," said Zhang Jianfeng, part-time mountain dweller and founder of a Taoism magazine. [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]

“The officially atheist Communist Party came to power in 1949, cutting the hermits' political connections. Anti-religious campaigns reached fever pitch during the decade of upheaval beginning in 1966 known as the Cultural Revolution, when many of the temples and shrines in the Zhongnan mountains were destroyed and their denizens dispersed. Nonetheless experts estimate several hundred hermits survived the period unscathed deep in the hills, with some even said to be unaware the Communists had taken power. \=/

In recent years, more and more people have become interested in the exclusive life led by the hermits in Zhongnan Mountain, especially following the publication of books such as Road to Heaven: Encounters with Chinese Hermits by American author and translator Bill Porter in 1993. [Ibid]

Zhongnan Mountain Hermits

AFP reported: “His unheated hut is half way up a mountain with no electricity, and his diet consists mostly of cabbage. But Master Hou says he has found a recipe for joy. "There is no happier way for a person to live on this earth," he declared, balancing on a hard wooden stool outside his primitive mud brick dwelling. Hundreds of millions have moved to China's urban areas during a decades-long economic boom, but some are turning their backs on the bright lights and big cities to live as hermits. Their choice puts them in touch with an ancient tradition undergoing a surprising modern-day revival. [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]


Zhongnan Mountain

“Hundreds of small huts dot the jagged peaks of the remote Zhongnan mountains in central China, where followers of Buddhism and local Taoist traditions have for centuries sought to live far from the madding crowds. "The Zhongnan mountains have a special aura," said Hou, who moved to the hills almost a decade ago and wrapped himself in a long black robe, smiling as the wind rustled the surrounding woods. Hou grew up in the bustling coastal city of Zhuhai, next to the gambling Mecca of Macau, but now his days consist almost entirely of meditation, with pauses to chop firewood and vegetables. "Cities are places of restless life. Here is where you can find inner joy," he said. "Now I'm happy to be alone." \=/

“Winter temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius and deadly snakes lurk under rocks, but the mountaintops are growing increasingly crowded amid rising dissatisfaction with materialism. Hou -- who looks in his 40s but says Taoists do not reveal their age -- was recently joined by two apprentices. Wang Gaofeng, 26, has a wispier beard than his master, and said he had quit a management-level job in China's vast railway system a year ago. "Watching TV and playing video games are just temporary excitement, like opium. That kind of pleasure is quickly gone," he said, chomping on some freshly boiled cabbage. It is a radically individualistic contrast to the collectivist mantras of past decades. \=/

New Breed of Taoist Mountain Hermits

The numbers of mountain hermits have risen since the government relaxed religious controls in the 1980s. "Twenty years ago, there were just a few hundred people living in the Zhongnan mountains. But in the last few years, the number has increased very quickly," Zhang Jianfeng, part-time mountain dweller and founder of a Taoism magazine, told AFP. "Now perhaps there are too many people blindly moving to the mountains. There are incidents every year, people eating poisonous mushrooms, or freezing to death... some people lack common sense." [Source: AFP, December 16, 2014 \=/]


Taoist hermit at Zhongnan

AFP reported: “Much of the hermit revival can be attributed to American writer Bill Porter, who in the 1993 published the first book about the mountain dwellers. It was a commercial failure in the US, leaving Porter living on government food stamps. But its 2006 Chinese translation became a hit, selling more than 100,000 copies. "In the 1980s no one paid the hermits any attention, because everyone had a chance to make a buck and improve their lives materially," said the shaggy-bearded author. "People thought it absurd to go in the opposite direction." Now he notes more well-educated former professionals among the denizens of what he calls "hermit heaven", and one who did not want to be named told AFP he was a government official on sabbatical. "You get a much wider mix, people who are jaded or disillusioned in the current economy and are seeking something more," said Porter. \=/

“China's decades of breakneck economic growth have created a substantial middle class, but a few of them now openly question materialist values. Around a dozen young people from across China live in a clump of wooden huts which acts as a testing ground for aspiring hermits, albeit outfitted with electricity and a DVD player. \=/

“Liu Jingchong, 38, moved in after quitting a lucrative job in the southern city of Guangzhou this year, and plans to live completely alone. "I felt life was an endless circle: finding a better car, better job, a better girlfriend, but not going anywhere," he said, sitting cross-legged on a cushion. "When I'm alone on the mountain, I will just need shelter, a pot, and seeds from the pine trees." \=/

“More than half the hermits in the range are said to be women, and Li Yunqi, 26, spent several weeks at the cottages. "I like the life of a hermit, living on a mountain. I came here for inner peace and to escape the noise of the city," she said, wearing a puffy pink coat and fiddling with a smartphone as an off-road vehicle carried her down a muddy path to civilisation.” \=/

Attraction of the Hermit Lifestyle and Zhongnan Mountain

Jiang Yuxia wrote in the Global Times: “Cherishing his reverence and curiosity for Chinese hermits, writer Zhou Yu was eager to change his fast-paced urban life. He thus embarked on a journey, in the spring of 2010, to seek hermits in the legendary Zhongnan Mountain, one of the birthplaces of Taoism, in northwest China's Shaanxi Province. Also known as Taiyi or Difei Mountain, Zhongnan Mountain is a section of the Qinling Mountains with the reputation of "Fairyland," "the first paradise under heaven" and a home to hermits for over 3,000 years. Legend has it that Taoism founder Laozipreached scriptures and nurtured the idea for his classic work Tao the Ching here. [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

"Everyone wishes that he or she has the chance to get to know about his or her own life again and the lifestyle of hermits provides us another picture. . . When they realize that they need to make adjustments to their lives, they go to the mountains to seek them," Zhou said. However, he added, real hermits don't have to live in mountains. "If you don't have peace and quiet in your heart, you cannot have tranquility even if you live deep in the mountains...Start with the simplest practice: To get to know your needs and desires, and find a proper position for yourself. If you can do that, you can find peace and quiet even if you live in the city."

Taoist Hermit at Zhongan Mountain


Zhongnan hermit hut

After traveling to Zhongan Mountain Zhou came across "Hermit Ming," who has resided in a thatched valley cottage for a decade, living an ascetic and self-sufficient life. Although Ming does not meet the typical image of ancient hermits, his unique lifestyle, both traditional and modern, and charisma aroused Zhou's interest enough for him to stay and turn the story of his solitary life into his latest book, Bai Yun Shen Chu (“Deep in the Clouds”). [Source: Jiang Yuxia, Global Times, February 17, 2011]

"Hermit Ming lives in the mountain not only to practice Taoism, but to have a place where he can live a life in which he can face disputes peacefully," Zhou wrote in the book. "Only in this way are his mind and body able to grow like trees and flowers to show their natural side." Ming's daily routine, according to Jiang, consists of: “an early morning start to do chores including hoeing weeds, tilling land and picking herbs; two meals a day, snack and tea at lunchtime, dinner at four; then a walk before settling down to read sutras or do other chores.” By sunset he returned home, “falling asleep to the sounds of springs, wind and birds.” [Ibid]

“Born into a wealthy South China family of Traditional Chinese Medicine practitioners for generations,” Jiang wrote, “Ming was beset with strict rules, complex relationships and feuds among family members from a young age. After witnessing a series of mishaps and the death of his mother at eight, Ming left his family at 17 and began his long-cherished dream of traveling around the country to seek answers to the many questions that had bothered him, including life and death. With only an aluminum mug and two lighters, Ming traveled all the way to Fujian, Guangdong, Jiangxi, Hubei and other provinces before he finally settled down at Zhongnan Mountain.” [Ibid]

“In the valley, he built his own cottage with help from other hermits and villagers living at the foot of the mountain, spending time growing vegetables, practicing Taosim and doing his chores. Unlike those secluded hermits recorded in old books, Ming is unconventional: He does not reject the outside world or its civilization. He has a telephone at his place to keep contact with other hermit friends while they travel around and is skilled at riding a motorbike. He has shared quarters with a female hermit for a decade. Ming has explored as far as Nepal to have a look of the outside world and is friendly to unexpected, curious visitors.” [Ibid]

According to Ming, "the major reason that we have too many agonies is because we receive too much information and we are not good at dealing with it properly. Then you become unhappy... When you live in the mountain, you have time to think about problems." Ming's lifestyle has also evoked Zhou to ponder modern urban life and even seek a way out. "In our life, most of the time we are asking for things from others to satisfy our endless demands. Hermits, however, are the other way round," Zhou said. “I found the possibility of a [new] lifestyle. When we feel bothered, we begin to examine our lives and ask ourselves if there are chances to change it. To some extend, many hermits in Zhongnan Mountain can be called seekers of a new lifestyle."

Image Sources: Shaman, Crystal Punk blog; Asia Obscura ; hermit: daoist wandering blog; hermit hut: View of China

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, National Geographic, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, Lonely Planet Guides, Compton’s Encyclopedia and various books and other publications.

Last updated June 2015

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