Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove


Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (zh-c|c=竹林七賢) were a group of Chinese Taoist Qingtan scholars, writers, and musicians who came together in the bloody 3rd century CE. Later it has been determined that the group is mostly fictitious; although the individual members all probably have existed, their interconnection is highly suspect, as is their alleged previous court official career. Careers notwithstanding, key members were linked with the "Taoist" Cao Wei; they found their lives to be in danger when the avowedly "Confucian" Jin Dynasty came to power. They wrote taoist poems, poems criticizing the court and the administration and manuals on taoist mysticism and alchemy. It would be a mistake to assume that all members had similar views regarding immortality or politics, however, and while some members tried to negotiate their difficult political positions by self-consciously adopting the roles of ale-fueled jokesters and eccentrics, others eventually capitulated and joined the Jin dynasty (most notably Wang Rong). Although it is unknown how much they personally engaged in Qingtan, they became the subjects of it themselves in the Shishuo Xinyu (Chinese: 世說新語 "New Tales of the World").

As is traditionally depicted, the group wished to escape the intrigues, corruption and stifling atmosphere of court life during the politically fraught Three Kingdoms period of Chinese history. They gathered in a bamboo grove near the house of Xi Kang (aka Ji Kang) in Shanyang (now in Henan province) where they enjoyed, and praised in their works, the simple, rustic life. This was contrasted with the politics of court. The Seven Sages stressed the enjoyment of ale, personal freedom, spontaneity and a celebration of nature.

Liu Ling, Ruan Ji, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong and Shan Tao were the other six sages who made up the group. Xi Kang was especially close to Ruan Ji; their relationship was described as "stronger than metal and fragrant as orchids". The wife of a fellow sage was said to be impressed by Ruan Ji and Xi Kang's prowess when she spied on them during sex.

It would be Xi Kang's disdain for courtly life which would eventually lead to his execution. The group's rural life became a common theme for art, and they inspired other artists who wished to retreat during times of political upheavals. The myth spread rapidly, and within a few generations the pa ta were so inspired by the supposedly anarchist revelry of the Seven Sages that they sought to copy them fully, while naked.

Another person associated with the Seven Sages is Rong Qiqi (榮啟期), who in fact lived quite earlier. This association is depicted in some apocryphal art from the fourth century CE, in a tomb near Nanjing.

The Seven Sages, or the symbol that they became, have been remarked to be influential in Chinese poetry, music, art, and overall culture.

References

*"Homosexuality and Civilization" by Louis Crompton
*"Chinese Civilization and Bureaucracy" by Etienne Balazs
*"A New Chinese Tomb Discovery: The Earliest Representation of a Famous Literary Theme" in Artibus Asiae, 1961 - Alexander Coburn Soper
*"Neo-Taoism and the 'Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove' in Chinese Painting" in Artibus Asiae, 1974 - Ellen Johnston Laing


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