Meet Ancient China’s 7 Sages of the Bamboo Grove

Portraits of Ruan Ji and Ji Kang. (Image:  wikimedia /  CC0 1.0)
Portraits of Ruan Ji and Ji Kang. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

During the 3rd century CE, there lived a group of seven men in China known as the Seven Sages of The Bamboo Grove. They were philosophers, writers, musicians, and scholars who had a distaste for court life. As such, they used to gather around a bamboo grove near the house of their leader Ji Kang where they shared their wisdom and admired each other’s work.

The Seven Sages were very fond of alcohol and adamant about enjoying their personal freedoms to their fullest extent. Some of them criticized the court and administration, which brought them in conflict with the ruling class.

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (with a boy attendant), a Kano School Japanese painting of the Edo period. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

“Their independent behavior contested the long-held Confucian ideal of virtue earned through public service and suggested, instead, that self-perfection came through the cultivation of individuality. The idea of retiring from public life to pursue the cultivation of the self appealed both to those who were alienated from political affairs and to those who were motivated by religious practice or aesthetics,” according to the New World Encyclopedia.

Ji Kang

Ji Kang, the person who is usually identified as the leader of the group, was the most vocal about his ideas. His criticism of Confucianism and prevailing social conventions made him a target of hatred. When the regent of the place extended an offer of the position of a civil official, Ji Kiang rejected it quite insolently. He was soon charged with “perversion of public morals” and sentenced to death.

Three thousand students of the Imperial College gathered at his beheading and requested the punishment be waived. However, the administrators went ahead and executed Ji Kang. Prior to being killed, Ji is said to have played one last song on his favorite instrument, the guqin. “His life remains emblematic of an independent-minded scholar who lived life to its fullest, disregarding hollow societal conventions to follow his bliss,” according to China Simplified.

The seven worthies of the bamboo grove. (Cao Wei-Jin dynasties). (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

‘The Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove,’ Cao Wei-Jin dynasties. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Liu Ling

Liu Ling was a poet and scholar who retired to the countryside to pursue a simplistic life, something he believed would be impossible in the court. He is popular for his extreme love of alcohol. In fact, one legend talks about Liu being followed by a servant at all times who carried a bottle of wine. He is also believed to have been fond of walking in his home completely naked.  

Liu had little attachment to the body and never cared for things like how he looked or where to be buried after death. As a consequence, a servant is said to also have carried a shovel when following Liu so that the poet’s body could be buried wherever he died.

American author Jack London was heavily inspired by Liu Ling on matters of alcohol consumption and mortality. In fact, he seems to have been in agreement with Ling’s observation that to a drunken man, all the affairs of the world appear only as “duckweed on a river.”

Ruan Ji

Ruan Ji was another poet who made up the Seven Sages. Unlike Ji Kang, Ruan was able to avoid many of the political dangers because he was willing to be seen as a drunk and eccentric, which made people discount his views. A famous story about Ruan concerns the killing of a mother by her son.

On hearing the news, he apparently stated that the killer might just go ahead and kill his father too. When asked why he thought that way, Ruan replied that animals know their mother, but not their father. By killing a father, a human being lowered himself to the level of an animal. But by killing their mother, they lowered themselves even beneath the animals.

Another legend talks about Ruan receiving news of the death of his mother while playing chess. Instead of stopping, he went ahead and finished the game. But during the funeral, Ruan is said to have cried violently. Poet Wang Ji often called Ruan the first man since the legendary ancient rulers to have discovered the path to the paradise of universal intoxication.

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Shaanxi Provincial Museum. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, Shaanxi Provincial Museum. (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Ruan Xian

Ruan Xian was a scholar and a skilled player of the Chinese lute. In fact, the instrument later evolved into the “pipa” and was named “ruan” in his honor from the time of the Tang Dynasty. He is believed to have had a child through one of the slaves he owned.

He completely disregarded Confucian rules of social conduct. In fact, Ruan was so carefree that he even drank water from a pig’s bowl in front of his family in one instance. To ridicule the extravagance of the people of the court, Ruan once spread open his large trousers using bamboo sticks. Despite his eccentricity, Ruan was known to be kind and honest. On one occasion, he allowed a tired servant to mount his horse on the way back home, something that a master rarely did in those times.  

Xiang Xiu

Xiang Xiu is famed for his commentary about the Zhuangzi, an ancient Daoist text. After Ji Kang’s execution, Xiang reinterpreted some of his controversial statements. This allowed him to avoid being charged with treason and get killed off like Ji. However, he was forced to accept several posts in the capital.

Xiang believed that the only way for a person to align himself with nature was through kindness and joy for color, beauty, and taste. He saw no difference between “great” and “small” men, stating such classifications to be artificial creations of man. He wanted humans to be unrestricted in their behavior and feelings. However, unlike some of his peers, Xiang never completely disregarded the Confucian rules of conduct and admitted that observing them is useful in certain social circumstances.

Seven Saints in the Bamboo Wood. (Unknown Artist) (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Seven Saints in the Bamboo Wood. (Unknown Artist) (Image: wikimedia / CC0 1.0)

Wang Rong

Wang Rong was a military general who took part in conquests on behalf of the Jin Dynasty. He later became a scholar of the dynasty, recording everything about the kingdom in great detail. Though he saw Confucianism and Daoism as aiming for the same thing, Wang believed that the teachings of Confucius placed too much importance on the method of instruction, while Daoists preferred to follow the path of nature.

Despite philosophical leanings, Wang was apparently an extremely greedy person. He was afraid that other people might raise plum trees bearing fruits with a taste comparable to what he produced in his land. As a result, Wang used to cut out the kernels before selling the fruit of his trees.

Shan Tao

Shan Tao was also a Daoist philosopher who shared the love of alcohol like other members of the Seven Sages group. While young, Shan was known to be magnanimous. He had a dislike for crowds. Shan recommended his friends Ji Kang and Ruan Xian to government posts.

Because of his wide knowledge of human behavior, the court often relied on his wisdom on many important matters.  He is not to be confused with Shandao, who was a Buddhist writer who lived in the 7th century CE. 

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