A new controversy emerged with the rise of the Former Han era, a peaceful and orderly time following the chaotic Warring States period. Confucians, long suppressed by the authoritarian Legalists now defeated, reemerged with a new angle to the issue of reclusion. No need for reclusion now, they argued, as they resumed their stations in the imperial court and ministries. They restored standardized state examinations for aspiring bureaucrats and established Confucian rituals and occultism as the state religion. The classic “I Ching,” ancient book of divination, was now declared to show that the times were appropriate for service. The emperor’s minions scattered to the countryside to coerce literate or merely capable men to accept appointments to the bureaucracy, a means of lending legitimacy to the latest emperor’s reign.
But though the number of Confucian recluses dropped, and not all Confucians agreed with the new interpretation, Taoists uniformly persisted in refusing to serve or to engage the bureaucracy in any way. Over the centuries, Taoists had crafted three versions of ethical reclusion.
1. Reclusion in the city, or, becoming a “hermit of the marketplace,” a hermit in the crowd.” This life-style aimed at inconspicuousness, a low profile in the heart of the busy imperial capital or other cities, and in the midst of the thriving neighborhoods. During the Han era, Zuang Zun, for example, would close his modest divination shop at midday in order to quietly teach Taoism in a back room of his shop. A student of Zuang Zun ascribed this saying to him: “What increases my goods harms my spirit; what makes my reputation destroys my self. It is for this reason that I do not serve.
Pursing a craft or skill, studying the classics, partaking of a life of conviviality within a community of like-minded — this was reclusion in the city. The “hermit in the crowd” was the ideal of the historical Chuang-tzu (Zhuangzi).
2. Reclusion to a farm or village affirmed the Taoist principles of simplicity and naturalness while providing greater anonymity than in a city and a more favorable setting for reflection and solitude. The recluse venturing to the land often worked side by side with simple folk of modest interests. Thus the intellectual Song Sheng-zhai quit the city to become a shepherd, take up the zither, become adept at calligraphy, and live in obscurity while practicing his virtue. The school of Tillers and Farmers early mentioned also contributed to Taoist thought by developing philosophical support for this form of reclusion.
3. Reclusion to obscure natural places by those called by tradition “scholars of mountains and forests” and “men of cliffs and caves.” These were the classic hermits of ancient China who disengaged not only from the empire but from society itself, including to some degree rural society, living in virtual isolation. Much revered by the ordinary populace, the hermits were often apotheosized by Taoist religion as those who had achieved immortality.