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Persons in Chinese History - Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢, the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove

Periods of Chinese History
The Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qixian 竹林七賢) were a distinguished group of scholars during the Wei 曹魏 (220-265) and Jin 晉 (265-420) periods that were known for their extraordinary lifestyle and their love of discussions. The "Worthies" were: Their philosophy was deeply influenced by the Daoist book Zhuangzi 莊子 with its relativist theory and negligence of worldly matters. They often met in the bamboo grove near Shanyang 山陽 (modern Xiuwu 修武, Henan) held banquets and discussed their worldview.
The seven thinkers made a clear distance to the events at the court, where the ruling family Cao had bloody fights against the powerful family Sima 司馬, that would eventually overthrow the Cao-Wei and found the Jin dynasty. A lot of intellectuals and courtiers fell victim to the fight for power: Cao Shuang 曹爽, He Yan 何晏, Ding Mi 丁謐, Deng Yang 鄧颺, Bi Gui 畢軌, Li Sheng 李勝, Li Feng 李豐 and Xiahou Xuan 夏侯玄, because they were loyal supporters of the family Wei. There is no wonder that many intellectuals escaped from the court and preferred private life of scholarship to the dangerous business in the administration. Parallel to the physical withdrawal from court affair, these intellectuals ceased to believe that Confucianism with its system of social obligations was a solution to the contemporary decay of state and society. They preferred the escapism of Zhuangzi and Laozi 老子 in the shape of the philosophy of the so-called "School of the Mystery" (xuanxue 玄學), which believed that a mysterious "nothing" (wu 無, i.e. the Dao) was a guiding principle behind all things. The Seven Worthies did not follow a common philosophy, but each individual had his own ideas about the world and so enabled a discussion with the others. Practically all of them occupied, at least nominally, posts in the central government administration.
The personal philosophies of the Seven Worthies can be characterized in the following way: Ji Kang, Ruan Ji, Liu Ling and Ruan Xian were adherents of Laozi and Zhuangzi, and were of the opinion that the traditional style of learning was useless in face of the need to return to nature. Shan Tao and Wang Rong were also influenced by Daoism, but also clung to some aspects of Confucian learning. The same is true for Xiang Xiu, who was probably the one among the Seven Worthies who was most following the traditional path of Confucian learning.
Their political attitudes ranged from loyalty to the Cao-Wei dynasty, as with Ji Kang, Ruan Ji and Liu Ling, who refused to serve the Jin dynasty, to Shan Tao and Wang Rong who held titles under the Jin, but never served in their offices. Xiang Xiu retired from office when Ji Kang was executed. In the end, the philosophy of the Seven Worthies did not allow them to actively participate in administrative affairs or even in the process of policy making.
Most of the Seven Worthies were also known for their literary skills. Ruan Ji is famous for his five-syllable poems in the collection Yonghuai 詠懷 and his rhapsodies in the collection Shou Shanyang fu 首陽山賦, Ji Kang for his poetry in the collection Youfen shi 幽憤詩, and his prose essays like Guan-Cai lun 管蔡論, Yangshenlun 養生論, Sheng wu ai le lun 聲無哀樂論, and Yu Shan Juyuan juejiao wen 與山巨源絕交書. Xiang Xiu was very strong in writing rhapsodies, the most famous of which is Sijiu fu 思舊賦. Liu Ling has written an ode to wine, the Jiude song 酒德頌, whose style and spirit is very close to Ruan Ji's Daren xiansheng zhuan 大人先生傳. Ruan Xian was a famous musician who created a special type of moon lute that was later called ruanxian. Shan Tao and Wang Rong were not very distinguished writers.
Seen from the personal character, the vulgar Shan Tao and the greedy Wang Rong may barely be compared with the five others. Ruan Ji was probably the most pure, upright and honest of the Seven Worthies. He often lamented that there were no heroes any more in his time, left the town and wandered around, only to return, weeping and full of sorrows. Ruan Ji never said a bad word about anyone, nor praised he any other people. Often enough he drowned his dolours in wine. Ji Kang was known as a person with a very straight and direct character, who did not only express his feelings, but also did not hesitate to criticize others. It is said that he did not love to bath and was therefore was of a very repugnant appearance. Sometimes he even did not want to stand up when urinating. His companionship was nevertheless enjoyed by the other because he was a very knowledgeable person and an excellent zither player. When he was condemned to the death penalty, 3,000 students of the National University (taixue 太學) submitted a memorial to the regent Sima Zhao 司馬昭 asking to pardon him, as the most skilled musician of his time. Yet the potentate declined. In face of his death, Ji Kang wrote the poem Guangling san 廣陵散. Liu Ling was China's oldest known alcoholic. Wine was his name, as it is said, and when he drunk, one hu 斛 (a volume measure) or five dou 斗 were just sufficient to appease him. He slept naked, and when laughed at, he said that the sky was his cover, and the room his trousers, and asked, why his guest dared entering his trousers?

Sources: Xu Gongchi 徐公持 (1986), "Zhulin xiqian 竹林七賢", 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. 2, p. 1311. ● Li Zhonghua 李中華 (1992), "Zhulin xiqian 竹林七賢", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chubanshe), Vol. 3, p. 1613. ● Zhou Shengwei 周聖偉 (1998), "Zhulin qixian 竹林七賢", in Zhang Dainian 張岱年 (ed.), Zhongguo wenshi baike 中國文史百科 (Hangzhou: Zhejiang remin chubanshe), Vol. 2, p. 1017.

February 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald · Mail
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