Sunday August 20, 2017

Chinese millennials head for the hills - to disconnect

A young Chinese man sits at a spiritual retreat in the mountains.

A young Chinese man sits at a spiritual retreat in the mountains. (Still from "Summoning the Recluse.")

Listen 8:04

This segment first aired in December of 2016.


With greater access to the global economy, young adults in China have access to technology, material goods and a wide range of lifestyles like never before.

So why are some Chinese millennials leaving that all behind to take up the hermit's life in the mountains?

That's the subject of Beijing-based filmmaker Ellen Xu's film, Summoning the Recluse. She was inspired by tales of ancient Chinese hermits who decided to leave worldly life behind and become recluses in the mountains.

Ellen was curious if this was still happening today; she'd heard rumours that there was a comeback of sorts. So she went up to the mountains, looking for ancient sages. But what she found was completely unexpected.

She found millennials!

Ellen's 11-minute documentary introduces several young Chinese urbanites who have left the city seeking out meaning beyond the hurried lifestyle of young, digitally connected people.


A photo posted by ellen (@yakyetiyak) on

Ellen Xu filming on location.


She said it's only been in the last few decades that this has been possible. Material prosperity has infused a "sense of individualism" into millennials. Prior to that, she says, young people were encouraged, even required, to look after their family first, and individual desires came a distant second.

That's no longer the case, leaving them free to explore their own sense of self without a sense of communal obligation, which has caused some to seek out religion, officially banned for decades in China.

"They grew up in a sort of spiritual vacuum," she says, so some have decided to leave urban life behind and head to the mountains, where they explore Buddhism, Taoism, or other less material pursuits.

While there, they must grow their own food, build shelter (or share shelter with others) and have very little contact with the connected world. There is generally no mobile phone service in the remote mountain valleys where they set up, she says.

However, it's clear that they haven't completely detached themselves from their technology. The first thing they do upon reaching the top of a mountain, after realizing they've picked up cell phone service, is take selfies to share on social media.

She says they seem to appreciate the technology even more because connecting to the internet is so challenging. "When they hear that 'ding', they're very, very happy."