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Ji Kang and Ruan Ji — Talented Scholars in Turbulent Times

In the year 220, the unified and prosperous Han Dynasty (202 BC — 220 AD) ended after Cao Pi forced Emperor Xian of Han to abdicate the throne. 


Afterward, the Three Kingdoms (220 — 280) era began.


In 254, Regent Sima Zhao (211 — 265) consolidated power and began to reveal his ambition to usurp the throne.


With endless conspiracies for power, countless wars between kingdoms, fading decency, and societal stability, many talented people started to hide their political beliefs.


Ji Kang and Ruan Ji were two representatives of talented scholars during this turbulent era who buried their ambitions and dreams in nature, art, alcohol, metaphysics, and deviant behaviors.


Together with their five other friends, they were collectively known as the Seven Sages in the Bamboo Forest.

Seven Sages in the Bamboo Forest by Artist Li Shida of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644)

Seven Sages in the Bamboo Forest by Artist Li Shida of the Ming Dynasty (1368 — 1644) — Shanghai Museum

Ji Kang — A Handsome and Rakish Artist with a Solemn and Stirring Ending


Ji Kang (224 — 263), courtesy name Shuye, was an exceptional litterateur, philosopher, and musician in Chinese culture. 

He was unyielding, fearless, and always followed his heart during this chaotic era that didn't tolerate him. 

Carefree, Handsome, and Talented Ji Kang

Ji Kang was born into a noble family in the Wei Empire of the Three Kingdoms and was quite famous for being tall and handsome.

He pursued absolute freedom, always left his hair untied (this was impolite in ancient Chinese culture), and loved walking in nature.


People frequently believed that Ji Kang was a deity when they saw him in forests or mountains.

Ji Kang was contemptuous of this turbulent period's chaotic hierarchy and complicated social etiquette. Hence, his poems and articles were of a brand-new style, which was pure, fresh, and natural but full of pride and integrity.

Besides, his calligraphy and painting were famous and popular as well. 

Ji Kang of the Three Kingdoms Period

Gaining a Mysterious Song and Excelling in Musical Skills

Ji Kang's accomplishments in the field of music were also quite outstanding.

In some legends, a mysterious man, some people said a deity, gave Ji Kang a music score; afterward, his performance was amazing.

The source of this song, "Guang Ling San," was mythical, but it did exist and had impressed many people during that period. 

Ji Kang also wrote books about ancient musical instruments and some of his beautiful songs. His way of health cultivation was well-known and famous as well. 

Consequently, his extraordinary appearance and talent made him famous and attracted many fans.

Noble Marriage and Political Dilemmas

Emperor Wen of Wei's grandniece married Ji Kang, who obtained a noble title and a political position.

But Ji Kang resigned and never got into politics.

When one of his best friends, Shan Tao, tried to persuade him to take an important political position, Ji Kang wrote a famous article to cut off their friendship.

Besides, Ji Kang always refused to talk to people he didn't appreciate, no matter how noble or wealthy they were.

Ji Kang lived with his wife near nature, carefree. He enjoyed music, poetry, art, forge iron, and the companionship of good friends. 

Jade Cup of the Three Kingdoms

Jade Cup of the Wei Kingdom During the Three Kingdoms Era — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Being Framed and His Final Musical Performance

However, his pride and straightforwardness displeased some powerful people.

After Sima Zhao gradually obtained power and showed intention to usurp the throne, he tried to get support from famous, noble, and influential people like Ji Kang, who never complied.

Once when a friend encountered something injustice, Ji Kang stood up for him. 

This gave those people whom Ji Kang had displeased before an excellent opportunity to set him up. Soon, Sima Zhao commanded to execute Ji Kang.  

On the execution, about 3000 students from the royal college begged Sima Zhao to cancel Ji Kang's death penalty and let him teach at the college, but they failed. 

For the last time, Ji Kang performed the famous song "Guang Ling San" using his Qin, enjoyed it with all the people nearby, and then faced the execution peacefully.

Ancient Qin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) Cai Feng Ming Qi Front and Back

Ancient Qin of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) “Cai Feng Ming Qi” — Zhejiang Museum

Legacy of Ji Kang

The frame-up and execution happened quite suddenly, so Ji Kang didn't teach the exceptional song "Guang Ling San" to anyone.


This song's music score today was reorganized out of some ancient books. 

Before Ji Kang departed, he entrusted his son to Shan Tao, the friend he had cut off publicly.


Even though they differed on political ideas and hadn't talked for a long time, Shan Tao loved Ji Kang's son and raised him well.  

Two years after Ji Kang's death, Sima Zhao's son usurped the throne and built the Jin Dynasty (266 — 420).

About half a century later, his son Ji Shao (253 — 304), another brilliant scholar, sacrificed to protect the current King of Jin. 

Dragon Kuilong Shaped Agate Decoration (Bi) of the Jin Dynasty

Dragon Kuilong Shaped Agate Decoration (Bi) of the Jin Dynasty — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ruan Ji — A Talented Writer with Melancholic Behavior and Exceptional Whistling Skills


Ruan Ji (210 — 263), courtesy name Sizong, was a brilliant poet, litterateur, philosopher, and musician in Chinese culture. 

As a best friend of Ji Kang, Ruan Ji was more discreet when it came to politics and struggled inside his heart.

From A Disappointed Politician to A Rakish Artist

Ruan Ji's father passed away early, so he was raised by his mother and lived a poor life in childhood. 

Ruan Ji became famous when he was eight years old for his extraordinary talent in poetry, essays, and musical instruments. 

He was quite ambitious when he was very young, so he accepted some political occupations where he did administrative and military jobs.


During this period, he wanted to serve his country, make some changes, and bring people better lives. 

However, after seeing countless conspiracies, endless wars, and the backwardness of society, he resigned and lived in seclusion.

Ruan Ji in the "Seven Sages in the Bamboo Forest" (also named Gao Yi Tu), by Artist Sun Wei of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907)

Ruan Ji in the "Seven Sages in the Bamboo Forest" (also named Gao Yi Tu), by Artist Sun Wei of the Tang Dynasty (618 — 907) — Shanghai Museum

Rejecting a Royal Marriage

Ruan Ji then started his life reading, writing, hiking, and drinking with his good friends in beautiful natural sceneries. 

Regent Sima Zhao wanted his son to marry Ruan Ji's daughter because of his admiration for his talent and reputation.  

But Ruan Ji didn't want this political marriage, so he started to drink every day and act like an alcoholic who was too drunk to talk about anything serious.

Two months later, the Sima family felt disappointed and finally gave up.

Sima Zhao's son, the young man Ruan Ji had rejected, later in the year 266, usurped the throne and built the Jin Dynasty (266 — 420).

Whenever the current king or regent sent people to ask Ruan Ji for political ideas, he would get drunk again.

Pottery Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Wei Kingdom

Pottery Wine Cup (Er Bei) of the Wei Kingdom — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ruan Ji's Impromptu Journeys and Exceptional Whistling Talent

Ruan Ji had been discreet in politics and didn't displease any authorities. 

As for those dissatisfactions and disappointments deep in his heart, he vented in other ways.

Ruan Ji always sat on a cart and let the horses run as they liked; he had no plans and didn't care about time and direction.

Till he reached a dead end that couldn't continue to keep forward, he would cry out loud for a while and then go back home.

This behavior was frequently considered deviant and rakish but was also representative of his hopelessness in the current society. 

Blood Amber Figurine of Wei Kingdom

Blood Amber Figurine of Wei Kingdom — Luoyang Cultural Relic and Archeology Institute (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ruan Ji was also quite famous for his way of whistling, a piece of special music that he used to express his complicated feelings.

When he whistled, people one kilometer away could hear him. Unfortunately, this skill had been lost to the world now.


His poems and essays were pure, fresh, and natural but full of pride, integrity, joy, and reverie of Taoism.

The Compromise and Conclusion of Ruan Ji

Ruan Ji disdained hierarchy, conspiracy, and hypocrisy, yet he remained adaptable and cautious.

Before the Sima family usurped the throne, they asked Ruan Ji to write articles to suggest the current emperor abdicate and to praise how good monarchs the Sima family could be.

Ruan Ji threw himself into alcohol for a long time but still couldn't escape this mission that he considered immoral and shameful.


So he wrote it and passed away one or two months after handing in that article.

Copper Lock of the Three Kingdoms Era

Copper Lock of the Three Kingdoms Era — Xiangyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

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