For a culture that historically has emphasised the importance of family and community, the widespread acceptance – and occasional celebration – of hermits and recluses in China is remarkable.
Many Taoist practitioners became recluses and, allegedly, cultivated magic powers in the process. Early varieties of Buddhism, formed as the religion migrated to China from India from the third century BC onwards, emphasised seclusion from the world and renunciation of materialist values. Periodically taken to extremes by various sects, in particular during the Tang and Song dynasties, these values generated official disapproval of Buddhists, and their occasional persecution as socially undesirable influences followed.
In much the same way, 1,000 years later, Christians (followers of another imported belief system) became officially viewed as agents of foreign imperialism, and pests in other people’s lives.
Chinese hermits gravitated towards secluded places where they could enjoy their lives undisturbed. From the 19th century onwards, Lantau’s isolated mountainsides became home to numerous recluses.
Other relatively inaccessible parts of the New Territories – such as pre-war Sha Tin and Castle Peak – attracted hermits, too. Not all were Chinese; more than a few Europeans chose to live in remote, beautiful places where they could enjoy the solace and pleasure of life away from urban Hong Kong’s manifold distractions.
Hermits fall into two broad categories. The general stereotype – particularly prevalent in the contemporary West – maintains that recluses are invariably cranky, world-hating misanthropes. And there are certainly plenty of those.
Avoidance of society is seen as deeply deviant and potentially dangerous. Serial killers, lone bombers and other deranged individuals are often labelled – after their crimes – as self-absorbed loners and social misfits.
Positive recluses are far more commonplace but – being harmless – significantly less noticeable to the wider world.
These individuals delight in books, music, gardens, countryside, animals and their inner world.
The carefully selected companionship of like-minded people, either family, friends or a combination of both, who enrich their own lives, defines this kind of recluse. A disinclination to participate in contemporary Hong Kong’s constant materialistic display, brittle amusements and mindless competitiveness is all too often seen as a sign of serious inner fault with the individual in question, rather than any inherent deficiency with society itself.
Their outlook is, for some, particularly hard to understand in today’s celebrity-obsessed world, where people are famous – and, even more bizarrely, internationally celebrated – merely for being famous. Reality-television shows are the ultimate example of this sad cheapening of the human spirit.
One of the modern world’s most famous literary recluses, To Kill a Mockingbird author Harper Lee, summed up the singular attraction of the hermit’s life in a rare public statement several years ago: “In an abundant society where people have laptops, cellphones, iPods and minds like empty rooms, I still plod along with books.”
For more on Hong Kong history and heritage, go to scmp.com/topics/old-hong-kong