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Persons in Chinese History - The Seven Masters of the Jian'an Reign-Period 建安七子 and the Three Caos 三曹

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The last decade of the Eastern Han period 東漢 (25-220 CE) was politically turbulent, but produced nearly a dozen of famous poets and writers known as the Seven Masters of the Jian'an reign-period (Jian'an qizi 建安七子), to which the three Caos (san Cao 三曹) have to be added. The Seven Masters are Kong Rong 孔融 (courtesy name Wenju 文舉), Chen Lin 陳琳 (Kongzhang 孔璋), Wang Can 王粲 (Zhongxuan 仲宣), Xu Gan 徐幹 (Weichang 偉長), Ruan Yu 阮瑀 (Yuanyu 元瑜), Ying Yang 應瑒 (Delian 德璉), and Liu Zhen 劉楨 (Gonggan 公幹), and the three Caos the warlord Cao Cao 曹操 and his sons Cao Pi 曹丕 (Emperor Wen 魏文帝, r. 220-226, of the Wei dynasty 曹魏, 220-265) and Cao Zhi 曹植. The Jian'an reign-period lasted from 196 to 220, and was thus one of the longest reign-period of the Han dynasty, but also the last one.
The term "Seven masters" was first mentioned in Cao Pi's treatise Lunwen 論文, which is the only surviving chapter in this book on literature, Dianlun 典論. Cao explained that the writings of the Seven Masters did not miss a single issue of scholarship, and their poems did not leave out a single word. The works of the Seven Masters were "like a team of horses galloping for a thousands miles".
The social background of each of the Seven Masters was different, but all of them were affected by the political, social and economical turmoils of the time. In later years they became followers of Cao Cao, and received his protection. Kong Rong served as Chamberlain for the Palace Revenues (shaofu 少府), Wang Can as gentleman of the interior (shizhong 侍中), and the others were trusted advisors of the Cao family. All lived in the residence of the Caos, Ye 鄴, and were therefore also known as the "Seven Masters from Ye" (Yezhong qizi 鄴中七子).
Nonetheless, there were also conflicts with the mighty Caos, and Kong Rong was killed in a dispute with Cao Cao. The circumstances of the lives of the Seven masters are also reflected in their works, with descriptions of the hardship and distress the people suffered, and laments for the sad fate of the united state and the Han dynasty. Most famous in this respect are Wang Can's poem collection Qi'aishi 七哀詩 "The seven laments" and the rhapsody Denglou fu 登樓賦 "Mounting the tower", Chen Lin's Yin ma changcheng ku xing 飲馬長城窟行 "Watering the horses at the Great Wall", Ruan Yu's Jia chu bei guo men xing 駕出北郭門行 "Riding out the northern city gate", or Liu Zhen's Zeng congdi 贈從弟 "Present for my younger cousin". All of these works show a realistic tendency in the descripton of feelings and thoughts. Some poems express deepest sorrows, like Ruan Yu's Qi'aishi or Liu Zhen's poem without title (shiti 失題). Poems of the later phase are characterized as hymns on the power of the Cao family and the own position gained under their protection. They describe bankets or represent acceptance letters on presents received.
Each of the Seven Masters had his own strength. Kong Rong was famous for his elegant style in prose writings submitted to the authorities, Wang Can for his poems and rhapsodies. Liu Zhen was an excellent poet, while Chen Lin and Ruan Yu were good in writing letters and notes on official affairs. The style of Chen Lin is described as sturdy and vigorous, that of Ruan Yu as natural and fluent. Poems and rhapsodies of Xu Gan were of a refined and minute character, with a somewhat relaxed flow of words. The less famous Ying Yang wrote harmonious and rich poems. Surpassing all differences, the style of the Seven Masters had also something common that is called the Jian'an style (Jian'an fenggu 建安風骨 or Jian'an fengge 建安風格). In his literary critique Wenxin diaolong 文心雕龍, Liu Xie 劉勰 described this style as "elegant and generous" (yahao kangkai 雅好慷慨), standing in opposition of the political turbulences and the social disintegration of the time. With its strict determination and the strength of the brush, the Masters provided clear outlines of what they wanted to say, and filled them with much spirit.
The Seven Masters were an eminent group of early writers that contributed substantially to the further development of poetry, rhapsody, and prose. They gave the relatively young genre of five-syllable regular poems (wuyan shi 五言詩, by Tang period 唐, 618-907, writers called gushi 古詩 "old regular poems") enough impetus to make this kind of poetry the most popular one. The most important examples of this genre are Xu Gan's Shisi 室思 "Thoughts at home", and the above-mentioned two poems of Chen Lin and Ruan Yu. Also Liu Zhen's poetry was seen as admirable, with a "framework withstanding the hoarfrost, and a mood suprassing the vulgar", as Zhong Rong 鍾嶸 wrote in his critique Shipin 詩品.
In the field of rhapsodies, the Seven Masters preferred the short "lesser rhapsodies" (xiaofu 小賦) over the traditional long and descriptive rhapsodies of earlier writers like Ban Gu 班固. In this way they cemented a new style of rhapsody that had been created by Zhang Heng 張衡 and Cai Yong 蔡邕, and helped this literary genre to survive. In terms of content, the Seven Masters left the field of palaces, capitals and imperial hunts, and dedicated their rhapsodies to the description of everday issues, and also included social matters.
The official prose writings by Kong Rong (Jian Mi Heng shu 薦禰衡疏, Yu Cao Gong lun sheng xiao zhangshu 與曹公論盛孝章書), the letters and notes by Chen Lin (Yi Yuzhou ji 移豫州檄, also called Wei Yuan Shao ji Yuzhou 為袁紹檄豫州, or Wei Cao Hong yu Wei Taizi shu 為曹洪與魏太子書) and Ruan Yu (Wei Cao Gong zuo shu yu Sun Quan 為曹公作書與孫權) or the treatises by Xu Gan and Wang Can (Wubenlun 務本論, Jingzhou wenxue jiguan zhi 荊州文學記官志) were characterized, as Cao Pi said, by the spirit laid into their words. Some of these prose writings, and that of Kong Rong and Chen Lin in particular, already showed the tendency of paired and rhymed sentences (pianti 駢體), a highly sophisticated style that became popular during the Jin 晉 (265-420) and Southern Dynasties 南朝 (420~589) periods. Ying Yang and Ruan Yu both wrote a treatise called Wenzhi lun 文質論 "On writing and substance", which can be seen as short contributions to the theory of literature.
Of the collected writings of each of the Masters, nothing has come upon us. Xu Gan's philosophical and politicaltreatise Zhonglun 中論 has survived. The Ming period 明 (1368-1644) collector Zhang Pu 張溥 assembled fragments of the works of the Seven Masters and thus reconstructed their writings, giving them the title Kong Shaofu ji 孔少府集, Wang Shizhong ji 王侍中集, Chen Jishi ji 陳記室集, Ruan Yuanyu ji 阮元瑜集, Liu Gonggan ji 劉公幹集, and Ying Delian Xiulian ji 應德璉休璉集. They are found in the collection Han Wei Liuchao baisanjia ji 漢魏六朝百三家集. The Qing period 清 (1644-1911) collector Yang Fengzhen 楊逢辰 published the collection Jian'an qizi ji 建安七子集.

Sources: Zhao Zecheng 趙則誠, Zhang Liandi 張連弟, Bi Wanchen 畢萬忱 (ed. 1985), Zhongguo gudai wenxue lilun cidian 中國古代文學理論辭典 (Changshun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), p. 304. ● Jiang Xijin 蔣錫金 (ed. 1990), Wen-shi-zhe xuexi cidian 文史哲學習辭典 (Changchun: Jilin wenshi chubanshe), p. 34. ● Yan Jinghan 閻景翰 (ed. 1990), Xuezuo yishu da cidian 寫作藝術大辭典 (Xi’an: Shaanxi renmin chubanshe), p. 1419. ● Xu Songchi 徐公持 (1986), "Jian'an qizi 建安七子", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo wenxue 中國文學 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 1, p. 298. ● Zou Yunhu 鄒云湖 (1998), "Jian'an qizi 建安七子", in Zhang Dainian 張岱年 (ed.), Zhongguo wenshi baike 中國文史百科 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang renmin chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 1016.

June 8, 2016 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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