A Hermit s Life

Shi Xiaohong @ Monika Höfler

Their country is loud and fast, and many Chinese again admire people who have chosen silence. A journey to the hermits of the mountains

Isn’t it funny?So far he has withdrawn from the world, so high in the mountains lies his hermitage, and yet the world gives no rest. It hoots into his silence, into the buzzing of sun-drenched bees. Noises up like a banging outdoor pool, as if it can’t stand the fact that someone doesn’t want anything from it. Sometimes Shi Xiaohong thinks about what it was like to live down there with the people. But over the years, the memory of his former life has faded. He has found other companions. The wind. And the mountain – that one above all.

It is a sacred mountain, and it looks like one. One is immediately reminded of kung-fu films in which the fighters fly from peak to peak. White rock plunges into dizzying precipices only to rise again in gentle waves. Bizarre pines ride on rocky outcrops. Sometimes the mist eats them, then breathes them out again.

Located in Shaanxi Province in the heart of China, Huashan is one of the empire’s holiest mountains, one of its earliest spiritual centres. It is famous for the adventurous paths that Daoist hermits once carved into its vertical rock faces. Sometimes you balance on rusty chains, then on rotten boards; if you fall here, you have gambled away your life. The paths still exist, but the area has long been crowded with tourists, two million a year. And yet, if you search, you can still find hermits.

But first you have to go through the world of visitors. At the summit, they pour out of the cable car. Men, chain-smoking, with briefcases and leather shoes. Women in miniskirts, posing coquettishly in front of the yawning abyss. Permanent snappers, self-appointed mountain guides, trumpeting like lead elephants. Music plays, dragged up the mountain in hundreds of mobile phones. A man carries his girlfriend’s handbag around his neck like a Saint Bernard carrying a barrel of rum. Close to each other, they are tripping over paths, actually, they could all put their hands on the shoulder of the person in front of them for a mountain polonaise. They have money, they have time, they have come to enjoy themselves. With prosperity, the Chinese have discovered leisure.

The Holy Mountain Huashan @ Monika Höfler

Now they have to be careful. With the masses, they push their way down the stone steps. There – at the bridge, turn sharp right at the „No Entry“ sign. You step through a

teintor, mighty and ancient, you pass through a tunnel carved into the mountain by human hands and stand in front of a blue door that squeaks on its hinges. Here on Huashan lives Shi Xiaohong, in the oldest man-made hermitage in the whole area.

800 years ago, hermits hewed caves into the semicircle of the perfectly curved stone. Two small ones and one ten metres high. They carved stairs into the mountain, decorated the cave ceilings with stone flowers. He moved in here 17 years ago. He has planted a vegetable patch, built a few huts, installed a solar system that supplies him with the little electricity he needs, for example, to listen to his cassettes: New Age from the Austrian Alps.

Shi Xiaohong s Cave @ Monika Höfler

At first he is shy, confused. Suspicious behind the hospitality – his answers say everything and nothing, lead into a nebulous land of poems, stories, the big picture. He doesn’t want to reveal much about himself, least of all his age. It is hard to tell from his face, the fine features, the freckles, the clear gaze, the white and red mottled beard. He wears the Daoist garb, the black smock, his hair twisted into a bun. He seems young and old at the same time. At the end of the first day, there is nothing in the notebook that can be used. There is no point. Give up, leave. He has probably lived too long in solitude, is neither willing nor able to talk.

But then he wants us to stay. We don’t have a choice: in the evening, a violent storm breaks over the mountain, the way down into the valley is too dangerous, a small monastery offers refuge. The wind rattles the window, rain whips across the monastery courtyard. The old stories push their way into the half-sleep. What was it like? Whoever knocks on the gate three times is turned away twice? Is he testing us?

The next morning there is centimetres of snow on the mountain path. Silence, except for the crunch of boots. When we knock on his door, he is completely different from yesterday. For fifteen minutes he sweeps the leaves out of the guest den, arranges the chairs, cleans the cups to pour his best tea, the hundred-year-old. He begins to tell. About his earlier life. The village, not far from here, where he grew up, from where he saw the mountains. He longed for them – to roam over peaks, through valleys, cross rivers, lose himself in the forest. Dreaming of a time when man and heaven were close. He had no name for these dreams, nor would it have occurred to him to put them into a religion. He only knew that no one understood him. It was the early eighties, the reforms in China had just begun, everyone was plunging into the sea of business.

into the sea of business. Everyone longed for a television, a bicycle, a video recorder.

Shi longed for something nameless. Everyone enjoyed the new freedom, which didn’t feel like freedom at all to Shi. „Modern society is so flighty. I felt more and more that I could not adapt to it.“ At the time, he felt alone, but he now understands that many people feel that way. „Modern society has reached an extreme, people’s desire for wealth, for luxury is extreme. The world of objects is separated from the spirit. People’s souls are empty, they can no longer see their inner selves, they have forgotten themselves.“ Shi believes that the modern world has reached its zenith. That it will soon return to the old civilisation. „The Daoists call this reconstruction.“

That’s how he speaks today. Back in the village, he was searching and didn’t know what. There were hardly any books, the Cultural Revolution had destroyed religious life, even if his grandparents secretly worshipped Buddha. Shi remembers one evening in his youth well. A theatre troupe had stopped in the neighbouring village, a rare attraction, and everyone ran to see it. Under the stage, Shi saw a man in a black smock and white stockings, his long hair pinned under a cap – a Daoist monk, he was playing chess. Shi had never seen one before. The man looked as if he had just walked out of the old China into the new.

Shi didn’t know much about Daoism, China’s oldest religion. Its sages invoked the unity of man with nature. Simplicity. The letting go of all worldly concepts, of ambition, of craving for recognition, of ego. And again and again – freedom. „A good traveller has no fixed plans and no intention of arriving,“ wrote Laozi. Shi couldn’t take his eyes off the monk. „Never have I seen a chess player like him. He used the strategy of Laozi.“ The wu wei, often translated in the West as doing nothing, means: the effortless, natural doing in which the person is completely with himself, in harmony with his surroundings. Shi was interested, but not yet ready to become a Daoist. He began to toil in the brick factory, one of the hardest jobs in the village. In 1988, he visited Huashan. Only as a traveller, with no intention of staying, but then he met a man from his village in one of the monasteries. He stayed, „also because the financial circumstances were like that“. In short, he was broke.

He lived in the monastery for seven years, then decided to leave. „They thought collectively, and I was an individualist.“ He wanted to be completely free, to live without restrictions, without the cor- sett of the monastery. „Daoism at that time had no form, no practice. The Daoists simply wanted to merge with nature.“ There is a statue of a mountain god in the large cave, but Shi says he doesn’t have much to do with it. „I’ve gone beyond the boundaries of religion.“ He just wants to be a „savage“, a „mountain man“. To be like the wind that sometimes blows fiercely and then blows gently, sometimes turning this way, sometimes that. Hermits, says Shi, is not the right word. Hermitism, he says, is a concept of the past, when the rich and powerful, the officials, even the emperors withdrew from the world.

The Hermit Hailian @ Monika Höfler

Ever since the Chinese began to write down their history, they have also told stories of hermits. Huang-di, the Yellow Emperor, is considered the first mythical ruler of the empire; according to the chronicles, he ruled from 2700 to 2600 BC. And it is said that two hermits taught him the art of defeating his enemies and prolonging his life. Repeatedly, the chronicles tell of emperors who sought out wise hermits to convince them to succeed them. The hermit emperor was regarded as a political ideal, invoking it as an early form of political criticism: power should be based on wisdom, not on blood ties. The hermits lived on mountains. And mountains were sacred to the ancient Chinese. On their peaks the gods settled, here the wise ascended to heaven.

Anyone could become a hermit. Paradoxically, this path was often taken by those whose goal in life was diametrically opposed to that of the hermit: officials. Be it because they fell out of favour with the emperor or were tired of the power games at court. Or because they wanted to attract the emperor’s attention. After all, the hermit official was considered virtuous. Sometimes the path to the mountains was just a diversion to a steep career. So it is no coincidence that the Zhongnan Mountains, to which the Huashan belongs, became the centre of the hermits, since they are not far from the old imperial capital Xian. Civil servants, painters, monks, seekers of meaning, poets, outsiders and cranks were drawn here. Myths and legends have grown up around this place, and it has been sung about in verses and songs. The Zhongnan Mountains are a place of longing for ancient China, the antithesis of a strictly hierarchical society.

The Chinese have always revered their hermits. Sometimes the hermit ideal shone stronger, sometimes weaker. And then it threatened to go out. In 1949, the communists took power. In their China, there was no place for escapism or religion, the „opiate of the masses“. In the Cultural Revolution, Red Guards stormed temples, smashed statues, humiliated monks and nuns. Religious life came to a virtual standstill. Those who wanted to practise retreated into solitude. But even there they were not safe: the Red Guards even penetrated the mountains to drive the hermits away.

to drive the hermits out. They did not always succeed. The American writer Bill Porter tells of an 80-year-old hermit he interviewed in Fujian at the end of the 1980s; he had lived in the mountains for 50 years. The two talked for a while until the old man interrupted Porter: he would like to know who this Chairman Mao was that Porter was talking about all the time.

In 1978, the reforms began. Slowly, politics gave people some freedom. Religious life also began to stir again. Destroyed temples were rebuilt, monks and nuns returned to the monasteries. It was as if they were trying to putty back together an ancient vase that had shattered into a thousand pieces. Some shards are lost forever, and even where they managed to glue the pieces together, the fault lines are visible. Above all, China has changed. Modernity is racing through the country; where it treads, nothing remains as it was. Everyone wants to make money, here and now, who knows how long the frenetic growth will last. Just the other day, an extremely friendly older man said on the bus: „Yes, you Europeans have a good, comfortable life. But let’s be honest: for us Chinese, that would be nothing. We want a bigger car, a bigger house and then a second one. You just don’t have that much ambition.“ And yet – sometimes, in the middle of the race, the questions creep up. And the less one has to fight for bare survival, the more pressing they become. At times, the city dwellers are tired, sick and burnt out. Something is bothering them and they don’t know what. And at some point they come up the mountains in their perplexity. To the centre of the Zhongnan Mountains, for example, to the mountain that is confusingly also called Zhongnan. This is where most of the hermits live. Nanshan, for example.

When we see him for the first time, he is dismissive. „Not now! I’m eating,“ he blathers. He is in his mid-30s and looks like he has been cut in half, as if he lives in the modern age on top and in antiquity from the waist down. On his jumper is English writing, something about „looking to the future“, and on the bottom are Daoist trousers. Nanshan has become cautious. There are so many visitors on the mountain now, and on the one hand he wants to help. On the other hand, the visitors leave a lot of rubbish, which the hermits then have to clean up. But above all, they bring money. And that changes Zhongnan Mountain. Temples and retreat centres are suddenly opening up everywhere. And some want to do what Nanshan particularly hates: earn money.

He has lived on the mountain for 15 years, in a tiny mud hut he built on an old graveyard. With other hermits, he has built a communal house where everything belongs to everyone: the books, the computer, the cups. But the other day a woman came into the community house – she has recently started running a retreat centre here – and said, „This cup is mine. And this is yours.“ Such experiences made Nanshan suspicious, but with time he thaws. Eventually he says, „I’ll guide you. The way that almost no one knows – to hermits who have lived here for a long time. And to one who receives no one else.“

Early in the morning they set off, on an empty stomach. „Not eating,“ Nanshan says, „is good.“ He turns onto a slim, overgrown path. Jumps over cliffs like a mountain fox. Glides over stones, moss and lichen, along the worm paths, past trees as strange as if they had grown up from the depths of the sea. Crawls through brushwood, thick as Medusa’s hair, leaving no broken twig behind. He points to the droppings by the path. „That was a black bear, I met one the other day, 400 kilos.“

Nanshan is a modern-day vagabond. He lives as if an emperor still reigned in Beijing, revels in old times and legends, only to sing pop songs again or spend hours on his smartphone. Sometimes he goes on holiday to the modern world: „To visit friends.“ Buddhism, Daoism, Confucianism, he has learned from all of them. What is he? Laughter. „Just an empty bell. As you strike it, so I ring.“

He was almost a child when he learned Chinese medicine at night, martial arts, feng shui, the knowledge of the old world. That of the new world did not interest him, he was often absent from school. At 16, he burned the books he loved – „books are just signposts, they kept me from gaining experience myself“ – and set out. On foot through southern China. „I broke two pairs of shoes to get rid of my bad qualities, superficiality and flightiness.“ He walked through modern China as if it were a much older one. Ate wild herbs, cooked himself snails. For a little money or a warm meal, he practised martial arts, qigong and Chinese medicine. He slept wherever he landed, on a roof truss, a tree, a graveyard. Eventually he had enough. „Like a cow that has eaten too much grass. I wanted to stop and digest.“ So he became a hermit.“

The path winds up a steep slope. At the top, nestled like a nest against the top of a mountain, is the Shizi Maopeng hermitage. Lion’s hut. A stupa, a monument to Buddha, surrounded by warped huts, the view from here is breathtaking. It is the stupa that the Buddhist monk Benxu spent three months circling. And this is one of the most moving stories of Zhongnan Mountain.

When you meet the monk Benxu, 44, for the first time, the first thing you notice is his subtlety. It is the way he speaks and gesticulates, the way he lets his gaze rest on the person opposite him. Every movement is reduced to the essential, every movement is perfect.

At 28, he moved into solitude to conquer restlessness, to attain enlightenment. For years, the former teacher had meditated in Buddhist monasteries. But the mind was a little bird that just wouldn’t settle down. Sometimes it fluttered here, then there, sometimes it wanted one thing and then the opposite. In solitude, Benxu believed, it would become easier. The opposite happened. His mind rebelled, raced, rebelled against the solitude. Benxu could not stand sitting in the lotus position for ten minutes. In despair, he picked up a book that his predecessor in the lion’s den, a Lamaist monk, had left him. It is the Bo Zhou San Mei – it contains the hardest discipline of the Buddhist „Pure Land School“. Those who seek enlightenment, it says there, go for three months. Without sleeping, without stopping even once. Circumnavigate

the stupa by day and by night! Tame the mind by conquering the body! „When you can no longer walk, crawl. When you can no longer crawl, roll.“ Benxu took a brush and wrote lines on paper. He pinned it to his hat, clearly visible. „Faith is as big as the mountain, the body as light as dust.“

„The first month was the worst.“ Blood pumped in his veins, his legs and head swelled, his eyes were mere slits. All strength drained from him. Dizziness, exhaustion. „I just wanted to fall over. I leaned on the walls, at some point I couldn’t walk any more. I crawled.“ Give up, sleep, forget, but there were his signs on the hut wall: „… the body as light as dust.“ And indeed, in the second month he felt lightness in his limbs. Everything happened as if by itself. One step followed the other, the mantra came from his lips without him having to say it. „The thoughts disappeared. They became one, dissolved into the mantra. When you stop thinking, you stop using energy. You are no longer tired. The senses become sharper. When someone says something at the bottom of the mountain, you hear it clearly at the top. You develop psychic powers.“

When spring crept up the mountain, the three months were over. Benxu lay down. Made tea. The state lasted, it was the most precious moment of his life. And eventually it faded away again. Benxu smiles a special smile, there is melancholy in it, acceptance and tenderness.

„Now things are pretty chaotic in my head again. Only when you are enlightened will it stay.“

We leave Benxu, move on. Down into the valley, over muddy slopes, we have been walking all day and still haven’t eaten anything, we arrive. And we are surprised: Hailian, the most reclusive of the hermits, is supposed to live here of all places?

Down in the valley, right by the road where the summer visitors are stuck in traffic on weekends, there is a stone above a bubbling waterfall. It seems to float above the waterfall, thick and round like a whale stranded on a cliff. Hailian lives in it. You have never seen a dwelling like this. To reach it, you have to cross the mountain river, jump from stone to stone, balance on a ladder that Hailian places over the waterfall. He almost never does. „I receive almost no guests. You have to know, my character is not good, I get angry quite easily. I used to smash the camera of tourists who wanted to take my picture.“

Hailian, 59, is a hermit out of the wildest escapist dreams. His hair is like a liana, braided into a plait at the back, his beard a wild undergrowth.

He has built himself a gigantic two-storey cave, a rock palace. On top of it he has installed an illegal satellite dish with which he can receive 40 channels. His favourite thing to watch are war films, epic movies about the civil war between communists and nationalists. They showed him, says Hailian, „how to avoid war and create harmony and peace all over the world“. In the courtyard he has hoisted the Chinese flag, which for him represents all the countries of the world. A light that suddenly appeared above his head had told him to do so, he said. „To protect the country, to bring peace between countries.“

Hailian has something of a lucid madman about him. He speaks enthusiastically like a child, his hands flying through the air like startled butterflies. Once a member of the Communist Party, he worked in the National Security Bureau, which performs both police and intelligence duties. As such, he had to be an atheist, but it didn’t help, Buddha, the Jade Emperor and the Dragon King appeared to him at night. For a while he lived in a Daoist monastery, and then there was this mysterious fire, about which Hailian is only cryptic. „They wanted to set me on fire. But somehow the police thought I had something to do with it.“

The fact is that Hailian ended up in prison. And, released, set off on foot in 1994, halfway across the country, to the Zhongnan Mountains. At first, there was only a dirt road leading along his cave, until the government built the road a few years ago. Since then, the crowds of visitors roar past. He shrugs his shoulders as if it were just the rain pelting the courtyard in front of his cave. As they say among the hermits? „The greatest hermit is the one who manages to live in the middle of the city.“

Automatically translated by deepl. Published in Zeit Magazine November 2012