1996 / 10月
Tsai Wen-ting /tr. by Phil Newell
"Who will be the first to awake from the grand illusion? In this simple life I know myself. In my thatched cottage I sleep to my fill on spring days, and outside my window the sun meanders by." Zhuge Liang's life in reclusion created an image of thatched cottages that was far beyond the ordinary; they came to be identified with the spirit of the gentleman farmer peacefully passing time. And the thatched-cottage life of poet Tao Yuanming-of which he wrote, "After long in the official cage, I have restored myself to nature"- has inspired envy in countless modern people.
But for modern people who subscribe to the country-life dream, would living in a thatched cottage really be as tranquil as it was for Zhuge Liang and Tao Yuanming?
Zhuge Liang, a statesman of the Three Kingdoms period, described himself as "habitually lazy," too lazy to be bothered with the affairs of the world. For a long time he lived happily puttering around his farm in Wolongpo, without regard for the comings and goings, honors and disgraces, of men of the world.
The Tang dynasty poet Bai Juyi, after retirement, built a thatched cottage in his beloved Lushan. It had but a few rooms and only two pillars, which weren't even lacquered, nor were the walls plastered. Inside there were no high-grade furnishings, just a wooden frame for a bed, a bamboo screen, and a few things the poet needed: a lacquered qin [a stringed instrument], and a few scroll-books of Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist texts.
In his thatched cottage in Lushan, Bai gazed at the peaks and listened to the streams, while the clouds, rocks, and plants in nature provided "inexhaustible" charm. He said that after one night in a thatched cottage, one's body would feel better; after two nights, one's emotions would be pacified; and after three one would be nearly intoxicated, communing with nature, at ease inside and out, and completely forgetting oneself.
From the poetry of Li Bai, Du Fu, Wang Wei, and Tao Yuanming, the thatched cottage has already become representative of those Chinese literati who chose to withdraw from the world and live in communion with nature. Their thatched cottages were simple affairs, where one could "sleep on a gourd rack" or "eat one's fill from crockery old and worn." As Lai Chih-chang, a lecturer in architecture at the Oriental Institute of Technology, notes: "The spirit of the thatched cottage is not in its form, but in the philosophy of life of those poets who opposed the squalor of politics and returned to nature and to a simple life."
Just the surface?
But it was not only deep in the mountains that one could see the spirit of thatched-cottage living among ancient literati. Even in the busy urban centers, some high officials, tired of extravagance and luxury, embellished their personal gardens with rustic thatched structures. In order to recreate the natural setting, they stopped at nothing, even "employing a giant ship, mobilizing 1000 workers, and digging up the river bed" to get strange rocks and curious plants from remote places.
Of course, as Lai says, "this pattern of destroying nature to make one's own pseudo-natural setting is, from the modern point of view, quite environmentally harmful." Lai, contrasting the act of moving nature into one's garden against that of moving oneself out into nature, concludes that the latter is the more substantial and satisfying, while the former is merely superficial.
Living thatched cottage
In Sankan Rural Township in Taichung County, there is a farm family that still preserves its thatched cottage. A small country road branches off from the main road, leading through a bamboo grove and acre after acre of vegetables planted on either side.
If the cottage's bamboo walls have any damage, the owner-now a farmer but descended from a family of officials-just cuts some bamboo from the grove to make repairs. When the thatch on the roof thins out, he just goes into the nearby mountains to cut some more. All the materials are there to be picked up, and don't cost a penny. Over time, the roof thatch has been repeatedly repaired, and there is both old and new thatching; these are the marks of a living-that is, lived-in-thatched cottage, far different from the meticulously maintained ones which are mainly for show.
Lai, who has visited the Taichung thatched cottage several times, is very moved by it. He says, "This kind of peaceful, inoffensive lifestyle is what the thatched cottage is really all about!"
Thatched cottages, mountain scenery . . . such was the characteristic refuge of ancient Chinese scholars who retreated from the world. (courtesy of the National Palace Museum)