too good for government work

ink and color drawing by Chen Hongshou (1598-1652)

“Of all the millions of people, nine of ten hold no official position: how could all of them be High-minded Men?”

So observed Meng Lou, a scholar-recluse, quoted in the mid-seventh-century Chinese text, “Accounts of Reclusion and Disengagement.”  In Chinese history, refusing to take up an official position in the government bureaucracy was celebrated as “an exuberant expression of individualistic endeavor and freedom from worldly taint and constraint.”  These highly respected persons were known under a variety of names:

Hidden Men (yinshi; i.e., men-in-reclusion), Disengaged Persons (yimin), Disengaged Scholars (yishi), Overlooked Persons (yimin #2), Scholars-at-Home (chushi), High-minded Men (gaoshi), Lofty and Disengaged (gaoyi), Lofty Recluses (gaoyin), Remote Ones (youren), Hidden Ones (yinzhe), Hidden Princely Men (yin junzi), Men of the Cliffs and Caves (yanxue zhi shi), Sojourners Who Prize Escape (jiadun ke), Scholars Who Fly to Withdrawal (feidun zhi shi), or Summoned Scholars (zhengshi; i.e., men who receive an imperial summons to court but decline appointment).[*]

But John the covert bureaucrat understands the truth:

The wisdom of hermits isn’t austere. It is practical and rooted deeply in practice. A practice that is embedded in the Dharma but expressed in the daily working of a hard, cold and sometimes lonely life. In that way the practice of the hermits is not so far from our own practice at times.

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[*] Meng Lou quote from Jin shu, Yinyi zhuan, 94.2443, trans. in Berkowitz, Alan J. (2000), Patterns of disengagement: the practice and portrayal of reclusion in early medieval China (Stanford, Calif: Stanford University Press) pp. 1, 198.  The second and third quotations are from id., pp. xi, xii.

3 thoughts on “too good for government work”

  1. A story: My academic advisor (paleonology/geology) was a fantastic curator, teacher and field captain. He was simply amazing in his scope of knowledge and breadth of kindness but he always referred to himself as simple…a state bureaucrat.


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