Record of the Thatched Hall on Mount Lu: Po Chu-i's Hermit House

Po Chu-i (774-846 ) exemplifies the dilemma of ancient Chinese philosophy: the Confucian ideal of devoting one's intellect and skills to state and society, versus the Taoist ideal of seeking self-integration and wisdom, necessarily away and apart from the worldly "red dust" of state and society. For Po Chu-i was a distinguished government bureaucrat but also its perpetual critic.

One morning I met with trouble and demotion, and I came here [to Kiangsu province] to lend a hand in the administration of Chiang-chou [as ssu-ma, or marshal]. The magistrate of the district treated me with kindness and generosity, and Mount Lu was waiting for me ...

The beauty of Mount Lu and its surroundings attracted Po at once. Though he was always lured by the political and social controversies of the times, Po was a Buddhist. He was also a a "householder" with wife and children. But he immediately felt at home on Mount Lu, dreaming of retiring to a small house in this wonderful landscape. He soon set about building a grass-thatched house of about a hundred square feet and was finished by the following spring.

Three spans, a pair of pillars, two rooms, four windows. ... I put a door on the north side to let in cool breezes so as to fend off oppressive heat, made the southern rafters high to admit the sunlight in case there should be severe cold. The beams were trimmed but left unpainted, the walls plastered but not given a final coast of white. I've used slabs of stone for paving and stairs, sheets of paper to cover the windows; and the bamboo blinds and hemp curtains are of a similar makeshift nature.

Po added four wooden benches and two screen partitions. His only reassured objects are a ch'in, or lute, and books, Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist.

Po has modest plans: "Next spring I will thatch the side room to the east, fit it with paper panels and reed blinds for my Meng Kuang." (Meng Kuang was the wife of the famous Han dynasty recluse Liang Hung, the couple being a model of marital happiness).

In front of the house are some hundred square feet of level ground. A terrace covers half, with a pond of lotuses and fish, banked by bamboo and wildflowers. Nearby runs a stream among rocks, pines, and cedars, "some so big that ten men could barely reach around them, and many some hundred feet in height." The vines and underbrush beneath the pines block the sun from the forest floor. Even in hottest summer there are cool breezes. Hereabouts Po laid out a path of white stones.

On the northern side of the hall the cliff rises quickly, again covered by trees and vines. A stream flows here and some tea plants grow. To the east is a modest waterfall. And to the west, where the cliff continues, Po constructed a bamboo trough to carry water to the hut.

It is an ideal setting:

In spring the blossoms of Brocade Valley, in summer the clouds of Stone Gate Ravine, in autumn the moon over Tiger Creek, in winter the snows on Incense Burner Peak. Now revealed, now hidden, in clear or cloudy weather, in twilight or at dawn, undergoing a thousand changes, assuming ten thousand forms. ...

Here Po Chu-i evokes the familiar imagery of Buddhist poetry. His dwelling-place is, of course, himself, and the wonderful scenery around it has become the myriad forms of the universe. His presence in this place has given him a serenity unattainable in any social setting. "How could I be anything but happy with my surroundings and at peace within, my body at rest, my mind content!"

Po is still young, still a functionary. He cannot retire, yet. But he can daydream of retirement and the welcome life of Mount Lu:

When I have married off my younger siblings and served out my term as ssu-ma, when I can stay or go as a I choose, then you can be sure I will take my wife and family in my left hand, gather up my ch'in and books in my right, and live out the remainder of my days here, fulfilling the wishes of a lifetime.