7. Eremitism in Ancient China: the Huainanzi

The end of the Warring States period in 221 B.C.E. offered Chinese society an opportunity for tranquility and stability. The Huainanzi emerged as a philosophical work embodying theories of government into a large and comprehensive treatise compiled by King or Prince Lieu An (179-122 B.C.E.) and scholars of his court in the state of Huainan, a small realm within the Han Dynasty empire. Lieu An submitted the work as a gift to his nephew, the 15-year old Han emperor Wu in 139 B.C.E., intending it to serve him as a guide and manual.

The gist of the Huainanzi -- which literally means the Masters of Huainan -- is based on a Taoist conception of the universe based primarily on Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, though other traditional and compatible influences are reflected. The work proposes identification of the head of state (king or emperor) with the sage, not only in personal values but in the basis of the form of government promoted  and in the ruler's effect on society, economy, agriculture, village, and family life.

Hence, while the Huainanzi does not address eremitism directly because of its ostensible goal of promoting social values, the work nevertheless reflects the personality of eremitism through its Taoism, effectively universalizing eremitic values of the sage as the basis for a harmonious society governed by a philosopher-king.

The Huainanzi is composed of 20 chapters and a 21st summary chapter. The work is light, didactic, and filled with anecdotal, folkloric, historical, and philosophical examples. The tone is usually reminiscent of the style of its Taoist sources, the hermits Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, concentrating on first principles of the Tao and extrapolating from them in "root and branch" literary structure, as the editors and translators of the most recent English version note (hereafter, editors). In the summary of the chapters that follows, therefore, the influence of eremitism will be pointed out as required.


The first eight chapters establish the Tao as root, as origin and governance of all practical affairs. These roots are philosophical foundations, beginning with the Tao and expressed as Potency (te), Heaven, Earth, cyclical time, resonance, humankind, and morality. Practical affairs (shu) are the branches: techniques, precepts, records, exegesis, discourses, sayings, overviews, persuasions, dialectics, refutations, and genealogy. The Huainanzi, therefore, is a comprehensive review of wide range, from cosmology to all of the practical arts.

The chapter reviews begin with the summary overview of chapter 21, wherein the editor Liu An explains:

We have created and composed these writings and discourses as a means to

Knot the net of the Way and its potency,
and weave the web of humankind and its affairs,
above investigating them in Heaven,
below examining them on Earth,
and in the middle comprehending them through patterns.

Liu An explains that if his treatise only spoke of more lofty philosophical issues, the Huainanzi "would cause people in their confusion to fail to understand them." On the other hand, to speak only of practical issues without a philosophical foundation, "there would be no means to move with the processes of transformation," those processes being the pscyhological, social, economic, and material conditions that comprise worldly life.

1. Originating in the Way.

This chapter establishes the infusion of nature by the Tao, and exhorts people to return to harmony with nature and that aspect of nature within the individual. Accessing of nature within and without is achieved by "inner cultivation" yielding an understanding of not only the deepest aspects of human inature but what the editors call "the patterns and structures of the universe."

The sage cultivates and understands, recognizing the principles of the Way in governance. The chief method of governance is stillness, tranquility, and deliberate non-action (wu wei). Deliberate non-action does not mean indifference but ordering according to nature so that society functions in accordance with nature rather than contrivance. Governance rectifies and maintains natural parameters so that "non-action" means action conforming to nature. The mind of the sage, characterized by tranquility, emptiness, equanimity, purity, and "spiritual illumination," achieves Potency, so that inner governance can then become external governance. The principles are freely borrowed from Lao-tzu.

Thus, the sage can say:

I alone remain detached;
I abandon external things,
and proceed together with the Way.

Liu An notes succinctly:

Therefore, if you have the resources to realize the Way in yourself, then breathe the canopy of lofty forests and in the bowels of deepest caves, you will have what it takes to respond appropriately to your situation.

The Huainanzi then quotes the famous hermit Xu Yu as one who refused power and intended instead to leave the world, The world, he argued, is

a spiritlike vessel: you cannot act deliberately on it; you cannot control it. Those who attempt to deliberately act on it will be defeated by it; those who try to control it will lose it.

When the Huainanzi describes the preferred dwelling-places of sages, it describes the dwelling-places of hermits.

To reside in a remote village on the side of a deep gorge hidden amid dense vegetation in a poor hut with a thatched roof on which grass sprouts up, whose door is overgrown by vines and which has small round windows, like the mouth of a jar and a mulberry staff for a hinge, a hut whose roof is blanketed by snow and frost so that the grass mats are soaked; to wander in a vast marsh and ramble on the side of mountain slopes ...

2. Activating the Genuine.

The "Geniune" is another term for the Tao. Just as chapter 1 depends on Lao-tzu, chapter 2 depends on Chuang-tzu and extends the first chapter. However, the practical minimalism of Chuang-tzu here becomes divinized as an embracing of the mysterious quintessential Spirit or Potency, tending towards religious versus prhilosophical Taoism. The chapter criticizes Confucius and Mencius (Mozi) as falling short of right comprehension. Antiquity is praised as the exemplary age, with historical time a devolution from the ancients' adherence to nature.

Antiquity was an age of Utmost Potency.
Merchants prospered in their markets;
farmers rejoiced in their work;
grandees rested secure in their posts;
and scholar-recluses practiced their Way. ...

Thus Xu Yu, Fang Hui, Shan Juan, and Pi-Yi attained their Way.

The legendary hermit Xu Yu has been mentioned above. The other three named were hermits in the legendary era of ruler Yao (or Tong Yao).

3.Celestial Patterns.

This chapter introduces several sciences of the age -- astronomy, cosmology, calendars, mathematics, and astrology -- in order to demonstrate the interrelated nature of the physical university and the impact on human affairs.

4. Terrestrial Forms.

This chapter presents the geographiical knowledge of the world beyond the Western Han dynastry borders, beginning with the legendary Yu the Great. The details emphasize (as the editors note) the "mythical, magical, the distant, and the strange."

5. Seasonal Rules.

The trilogy of Heaven (chapter 3) and Earth (chapter 4) is completed with "the role of monthly and seasonal ritual time in the proper governing of the empire" (chapter 5). Five seasons correspond to the five cosmological phases. The information provided is derived from historical almanacs and is intended for the emperor's administrative and ritual decision-making.

6. Surveying Obscurities.

The chapter centers on "resonance," which is "a kind of sympathetic vibration in the force field of qi that prevades the cosmos." This concept suggests the mysterious mechanisms of fate, obscure in the law of physics as much as in the emotional lives of people. Whence come strange earthly phenomena or human feats and skills, or bad fortune? Although the chapter does not fully explicate resonance, the argument concludes tht the sage follower of the Way perceives the necessary harmony with nature that resonance requires. 

7. Quintessenial Spirit.

The chapter begins with consideration of human beings, completing the trilogy of Heaven, Earth, and Humans. As the editors note, the chapter

discusses the paragons of human perfection, Genuine Persons (zhenran), sages, and Perfected Persons (zhiren), who are characterized by, among other qualities, their ability to ignore external stimuli and to draw Potency from their source in the Way and by their indifference to the experiences of life and death.

The quintessential spirit is the animating spirit or vital force that coordinates mental activity such as perception and cognition. It is a form of qi identified with flow. The chapter is derived from Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu.

The sage is a mystical practitioner "embracing the Foundation of Grand Purity." Sages are vast but empty, tranquil and without worry. They view the extremely exhalted and maximally favored at court as being the same as wandering guest scholars. Yao the Great is again evoked as the paragon sage, his house of rough beams, not a beautiful pavilion, his meals "coarse millet and a simple vegetable soup," and wearing plain garments. He was indifferent to power, which accounts for the success of his rule.

The chapter's general description of the sage-ruler is identical to that of the hermit:

Sages eat enough to maintain their vital energy
and wear clothes sufficient to cover their bodies.
They satisfy their genuine responses and do not look for more.
To not possess the empire does not diminish their natures;
to possess the empire does not add to their inner harmony.

8. The Basic Warp.

The chapter title refers to the root and branches analogy. The warp alludes to the tension of threads in a loom. Hence a clothpiece is a functional tension because weaving is a process of harmonizing separate threads. This harmony, or basic warp, is well represented b the character of the sage.

The chapter illustrates the character of the sage by presenting historical time as a devolution from a lofty standard of functionality, a classic Taoist presentation of a time when virtues are not named because of the perfect harmony with nature and emptiness of desire and action that prevails.

But the unravelling of harmony was prompted by "profligate indolence" in five spheres of activity: wood, water, earth, metal and fire -- here presented not merely as the five fundamental elements of nature but as example of human abuse or methods of abuse of nature. Thus, examples of this human abuse of nature are" to build sumptuous houses and war towers  (wood), to divert waterourses and excavate bodies of water for pleasure gardens (water), to raise city walls, fortifications, mansions, barrier walls, roads, or to fill or flatten hills (earth), to create bells, tripods, sculptures, fretwork, ornamentation, mirrors, inlay work (metal), to cook delicacies, burn down forests for hunting, stoke kilns for melting metals, denude mountainsides of forests, make charcoal and ash leaving barren fields and grassland (fire). Of fire, for example, Liu An states: "Above, the heavens are obscured by smoke; below, the fruits of the earth are extinguished."

With the violation of the five elements or phases of wood, water, earth, metal, and fire, the contemporary sage must consciously adhere to the "five modes of conduct" which were not articulated in the past because they were natural and living. The five modes of conduct are: Humaneness, Wisdom, Righteousness, Ritual Correctness, and Sagehood. The contrast between ancient and later ages is thus laid out vividly.

9. The Ruler's Techniques.

Techniques referred to in this chapter title are not political tips or strategies.

The ruler's techniques consist of
establishing non-active management
and carrying out wordless instructions.

The sage-ruler establishes an ambience saturated in the Way, and his subordinators and administrators project this environment into society and culture. The techniques are thus Techniques of the Way as much as being the Ruler's Techniques, consisting of "non-active management." As the editors note:

The ruler transforms the people most effectively by approaching them not with words but through the demonstrational power of his moral conduct, through a projection of his Quintessential qi. ...

The character of the sage-ruler is Moral Potency, which is coupled with "poistional advantage." Examples are, as in previous chapters, taken from antiquity to the contemporary. Here are some sayings:

The transformation of the people comes not from what the ruler says but from what he does. The movements of the Quintessential Spirit are like the generative power of spring and the slaying power of autumn. If you hear the sound of music, you know the customs of the place from which it arises. The ruler covers the world with his Potency. He does not act from his own wisdom but follows what will bring benefit to the people.

Section 19 of this chapter notes that "hermits are venerated for their reputation" and attributes this to the fact that "many [people] are confused by name and fame." The comment suggests that such automatic veneration of hermits should depnd on confirmation, not reputation. Similarly, confirmation comes from the ruler's actions and affections, not name or repute. The ruler in the age of decline impoverishes the people while dining in luxury and wearing brocade. In this context, the Huainanzi establishes an important distinction not maintained in Confucian thought: "Law is not a gift of Heaven, not a product of Earth. It was devised by humankind ... "

10. Profound Precepts.

The editors note that this chapter echoes "the radical optimism of Mencius" in promoting the ruler's moral autonomy and moral agency, and the ideals of self-knowledge and public goodness. These moral atrributes are ascribed  to the "Superior Man," itself a Confucian concept. The chapter extends the practical aspects of the Way, Moral Potency, Humaneness, and Rightness. 

11. Integrating Customs.

This chapter is about ritual, from origins to contemporary times, from simple to complex, and and how the sage-ruler should view ritual. Like law, mentioned in chapter 9 as a human contrivance, ritual is here considered (also in contrast to Confucius) as a product of a declining age. But the Huainanzi does not advise abolition or neglect, having in mind the Han dynasty's use of ritual as a social force. For this reason, Liu An prefers the broader term "custom." The summary opening lines remark that just as Humaneness and Rightness are honored in a declining age, displacing the Way and Potency, so too does Ritual represent a further decline of Humaneness and Rightness.

12. Responses of the Way.

This chapter presents 55 anecdotes of rules and actions that conformed or failed to conform to the Way and describes the results. The examples serve a didactic function for the rules, many from Lao-tzu but all intended to cap or confirm the techniques of chapter 9. Three types of anecdotes, or "persuasions," comprise this chapter: epistempology (knowledge of the Way and how to transmit it), ethics (moral Potency), and practice (positional advantage, introduced in chapter 9).

13. Boundless Discourses.

The present age has its shortcomings, argues this chapter, but the sage holds insights that would enable the ruler to resolve the present problems without looking back to the past to old or outdated solutions to changed circumstances. Historical anecdotes show that sages in the past operated on the same contemporary need to adjust according to cicumstances rather than merely deploying old patterns. The Huainanzi advises this because the sage draws not on events and personalities for solutions but to root principles. Embedded in the Way, the sage can assess change, policies, circumstances, obstacles, patterns, and affect Moral Potency. The sage-ruler can adapt to what the times require.

14. Sayings Explained.

Sayings are presented and explained, illustrating themes of the Huainanzi, especially the conduct ot the sage-ruler and his responsibilities.

15. An Overview of the Military.

This chapter diescribes military situations during the Warring States period as instructive not so much in techniques as interpretation of how to apply skills. The ancient heroic and chivalric military models had given way to the Sun-tzu Warring States view of the military as an extension of statescraft, and the Huainanzi acknowleges this view as the dominant cultural view, nevertheless diverging on many practical and ethical points. As scholar Victor Mair notes, the chapter is, in fact, "a robust argument against the militarized centralization of the Han realm."

The military has three functions: to regulate order in society, to spread Moral Potency, and to correct laws. This chapter argues that no other functions of the military are needed -- or should exist.

16. A Mountain of Persuasions.
17. A Forest of Persuasions.

These two chapter are treated together by the editors because of their similar literary style, structure, and didactic function as collections of aphorisms with commentary. The Sayings are commonplace, even trite: contrasts, opposites, parallels, analogies, and juxtapositions. For example, 17.30 states:

If you are covered with dust and you squint, that is good reason for doing so, but if you cover your eyes before you have even gone out of your door, that is contrary to the Way.

The editors identify this saying as "a criticism of eremitism." To paraphrase the saying: If you are covered with the dust of the world and retire, that is good reason for retiring, but if you retire before you have served or been in the world, that is contrary to the Way.  Several points of view suggest themselves, even from the Taoist point of view because of the pressing identification of the sage with ruling the state. But the saying otherwise contradicts Lao-tzu and Chuang-tzu, and seems an interpolation of other influences.

18. Among Others.

The chapter comprises a collection of anecdotes showing the folly of people, of "others," and how only the sage can affect a course among people. In 18.24 is mentioned Shan-Bao, a "hermit of Lu" cited here as an exemplar, from Chuang-tzu:

Shan Bao turned away from the age and departed from the vulgar. He lived on a cliff and drank water from a valley stream. He did not wear silk or hemp; he did not cut the five grains. After seventy years he still had the complexion of a child. In the end he met a hungry tiger who killed and ate him.

19. Cultivating Effort.

This chapter provides summary arguments of value to novices or students of rhetoric and debate, with an introductory overview, and familiar persuasive passages.

20. The Exalted Lineage.

Like the previous chapter, this chapter summarizes the entire Huainanzi, reviewing historical examples of moral potency, and exemplars for the aspiring sage-ruler. The chapter review extends from cosmogony to the necessary values for governance, with summary commentary -- unlike chapter 21, which reviews content without comment or interpretation. In 20. 8. is the quotable comment: "When a sagely ruler is in power ... there are no scholars in seclusion."


While not overtly an eremitic document, the Huainanzi is nevertheless constructed on Taoist principles that extol eremitic values and insights, especially a perspective of eremitism on how virtue and society function. Liu An's project of creating a sage-ruler was literal, in contrast to Lao-tzu's theoretical and figurative presentation, or Chuang-tzu's didactic and ideosyncratic one. To present the tome to a living ruler was itself perhaps Confucian in inspiration rather than ultimately Taoist, such that was was bound to incite resentment and suspicion. The Han court may well have feared that the emperor's uncle and the grandson of an emperor had threatening ambitions or pretenses to the throne. The court never responded to Liu An's gift. After Liu An's death, the little realm of Huainan was dissolved. 


Primary sources for the Huainanzi in English are: The Huainanzi: A Guide to the Theory and Practice of Government in Early Han China, by Liu An, translated and edited by John S. Major, Sarah A. Queen, Andrew Seth Meyer, and Harold D. Roth. New York: Columbia University Press, 2010 -- and their abridged translation, The Essential Huainanzi, New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Portions were also published as Heaven and Earth in Early Han Thought: Chapters Three, Four, and Five of the Huainanzi (John S. Major). Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 1993 and The Dao of the Military: Liu An's Art of War (Andrew Seth Meyer). New York: Columbia University Press, 2012. Thomas Cleary’s The Tao of Politics and The Book of Leadership and Strategy: Lessons of the Chinese Masters (Boston: Shambhala, 1990 and 1992 respectively) lack bibliographical and critical apparatus. Some secondary sources are: Griet Vankeerberghen: The Huainanzi and Liu An's Claim to Moral Authority. Albany, NY: SUNY Press, 2001, and Daniel Sungbin Sou: To Become a Sage-King in Huainanzi (unpublished dissertation, 2008).