China’s mountain hermits seek peace, find joy

By Tom Hancock ,AFP

ZHONGNAN MOUNTAINS, China — His unheated hut is half way up a mountain with no electricity, and his diet consists mostly of cabbage. But Master Hou says he has found a recipe for joy.

��There is no happier way for a person to live on this earth,�� he declared, balancing on a hard wooden stool outside his primitive mud brick dwelling. Hundreds of millions have moved to China’s urban areas during a decades-long economic boom, but some are turning their backs on the bright lights and big cities to live as isolated hermits. Their choice puts them in touch with an ancient tradition undergoing a surprising modern-day revival. Hundreds of small huts dot the jagged peaks of the remote Zhongnan mountains in central China, where followers of Buddhism and local Taoist traditions have for centuries sought to live far from the madding crowds. ��The Zhongnan mountains have a special aura,�� said Hou, who moved to the hills almost a decade ago and wrapped himself in a long black robe, smiling as the wind rustled the surrounding woods. Hou grew up in the bustling coastal city of Zhuhai, next to the gambling mecca of Macau, but now his days consist almost entirely of meditation, with pauses to chop firewood and vegetables. ��Cities are places of restless life. Here is where you can find inner joy,�� he said. ��Now I’m happy to be alone.�� Winter temperatures can drop below minus 20 degrees Celsius and deadly snakes lurk under rocks, but the mountaintops are growing increasingly crowded amid rising dissatisfaction with materialism. Hou �X who looks in his 40s but says Taoists do not reveal their age �X was recently joined by two apprentices. Wang Gaofeng, 26, has a wispier beard than his master, and said he had quit a management-level job in China’s vast railway system a year ago. ��Watching TV and playing video games are just temporary excitement, like opium. That kind of pleasure is quickly gone,�� he said, chomping on some freshly boiled cabbage.