An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ji Kang 嵇康

Feb 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Ji Kang 嵇康 (223-262), courtesy name Shuye 叔夜, was a thinker, writer and musician of the Three Kingdoms period 三國 (220-280). He was one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qixian 竹林七賢). Ji Kang's original family name was Xi 奚, and his family came from Guiji 會稽 (modern Shaoxing 紹興, Zhejiang) but later moved to the princedom of Qiao 譙國 (modern Suxian 宿縣, Anhui) because of private quarrels. At this occasion they changed their name to Ji.

Ji Kang was orphaned in his childhood, but his love of learning was soon discovered, and he was given excellent instructor. Because his wife was related to the imperial house of Cao 曹, the dynasty ruling over the Wei empire 曹魏 (220-265), he was appointed to the post of Grand master of palace leisure (zhongsan dafu 中散大夫), hence his cognomen Ji Zhongsan 嵇中散. He is therefore also known with the name of Ji Zhongsan 嵇中散.

His relation to the ruling dynasty made him a vehement critic of the powerful family Sima 司馬 whose representatives occupied more and more important posts in the civilian and military administration. This critique changed to open enmity when his friend Lü An 呂安 was imprisoned. The regent Sima Zhao 司馬昭 finally decided to have Ji Kang assassinated. History goes that in face of his execution Ji Kang played his zither and composed the song Guangling san 廣陵散.

The most important argument of his criticism was that the Sima family pretended to exert power by displaying a model of virtuous conduct (ming jiao 名教 "they feign instruction [by virtue]"). In fact, they were not at all interested in the ancient righteous rulers Tang the Perfect 成湯 and King Wu of Zhou 周武王 and neglected the standards that the Duke of Zhou 周公 and Confucius 孔子 had chosen. For power-hungry persons as Sima Zhao the Confucian Classics were no more than weeds, and the Confucian virtues of kindheartedness and propriety only rotten meat.

Ji Kang himself that a responsible politician had to function as a model for all others, and he had to adhere to the example of nature. In his treatise Yuanqi ziran lun 元氣自然論 he says that the primordial energy (yuanqi 元氣), a concept of Daoism representing the Way of nature and also human society, had to be shaped like a pot and be molten like ores, and so be made useful for all people. Daoist influence can also be seen Ji Kang's interpretation of the origin of human virtues in the Dao 道, the Way, that penetrates all matters of life and finds its most refined expression in music. Ji Kang used to practice the nourishment of life (yangsheng 養生) and to live of a special diet (fushi 服食). In the field of music, he argued that music is not able to express joy of sadness and had no relation at all to human sentiments.

He has written a lot of four-syllable poems, the most famous of which is the Youfen shi 幽憤詩. His collected writings, Ji Sanzhong ji 嵇中散集, are only preserved in fragments that were collected and annotated by the Republican scholar Lu Xun 魯迅, and then published as Ji Kang ji 嵇康集.

Li Zhonghua 李中華 (1992). "Zhulin xiqian 竹林七賢", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chuabanshe), Vol. 3, 1613.
Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 83.