Ji Kang and Ruan Ji — Talented Scholars in Turbulent Eras

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

 

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

 

Since the year 254, regent Sima Zhao (211 — 265) obtained power and started to show his ambition in usurping the throne.

 

With endless conspiracies over the power, countless wars between kingdoms, the lost decency, and stability in society, 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 to nature, art, alcohol, metaphysics, and deviant behaviors.

 

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

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

Ji Kang — 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 the hair untied (this was impolite in ancient Chinese culture), and loved walking in nature. When people saw him in forests or mountains, they frequently believed that Ji Kang was a deity.

Ji Kang was contemptuous for the chaotic hierarchy and complicated social etiquette of this turbulent period, so his poems and articles were of a brand new style, which was pure, fresh, natural but full of proudness and integrity.

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

Gaining of A Mysterious Song and Excellent Musical Skills

Ji Kang's accomplishment in the field of music was quite outstanding as well.

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

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

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

Consequently, his extraordinary appearance and talent made him quite famous and brought him lots of fans.

Ji Kang's Noble Marriage and Political Dilemmas

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

But Ji Kang resigned and never got into politics.

When one of his best friend 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 that 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 Wei Kingdom During the Three Kingdoms Era — Luoyang Museum (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Being Framed Up and His Last Musical Performance 

However, his pride and straightforwardness had displeased some powerful people.

After Sima Zhao gradually obtained power and showed intention to usurp the throne, he tried to get support from those famous, noble, 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 that Ji Kang had displeased before a good 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. 

Ji Kang, for the last time, 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” — 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 that he had cut off publicly. Even though they were different on political ideas, and hadn't been talking for a long time, Shan Tao loved Ji Kang's son as own 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 for protecting the current King of Jin. 

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

Ruan Ji — A Talented Writer with Lachrymose Behavior and Great Whistle Skill

 

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 more struggled inside of 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 poverty life in his childhood. 

Ruan Ji became famous when he was 8 years old, for his extraordinary talent concerning poetry, essay, and musical instrument. 

He was quite ambitious when he was very young, so he accepted some political occupations where he did both administrative and military jobs. During this period, he wanted to serve his country, make some changes, and to bring people better lives. 

However, after seeing countless conspiracies, as well as endless wars and the backwardness of the 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) — Shanghai Museum

Rejecting of 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, for admiration of 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 that 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 that 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 — National Museum of China (Photo by Dongmaiying)

Ruan Ji's Plan-less Trips and Special Whistling

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

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

Ruan Ji always sat on a cart, and then 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 about the current society. 

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 in one kilometer away could hear him. Unfortunately, this skill had lost to the world now.  

 

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

Ruan Ji disdained hierarchy and conspiracy and hypocrites, but he was cautious and more flexible.

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

Ruan Ji drunk alcohol for a long time, but still couldn't escape this mission, so he wrote it, and passed away one or two months after handing in that article.

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

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