Kong Rong

From New World Encyclopedia
Kong Rong
Bureaucrat and minor warlord
Born 153
Died 208
Simplified Chinese 孔融
Traditional Chinese 孔融
Pinyin Kǒng Róng
Wade-Giles K'ung Jung
Courtesy name Wenju (文舉)
Other names Kong Beihai (孔北海)

Kong Rong (153 – 208) was a bureaucrat, poet, and minor warlord during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He was also a twentieth- generation descendant of Confucius. He was also known as Kong Beihai, the governor of Beihai Commandery (北海, present day Weifang, Shandong). In 196, he was defeated by Yuan Tan (袁譚), the eldest son of the powerful warlord Yuan Shao ( 袁紹), and escaped to the capital Xuchang, where he served under Cao Cao, who held Emperor Xian of Han ( 漢獻帝) under his control. Kong Rong was eventually executed for being a political opponent of Cao Cao and humiliating him on multiple occasions.

Famed for his quick wits and elaborate literary style, Kong Rong was ranked among the Seven Scholars of Jian'an (建安七子), a group of representative littérateurs of his time, who brought a new dimension and vitality to scholarly poetry by introducing plaintive and emotional themes which were usually the subject of folk ballads, such as the fragility of life, the suffering caused by war and famine, and the distress of failed romance. Most of his works have been lost, and those that survive can be found in compilations from the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty. A well-known story, traditionally used to educate children about the values of courtesy and fraternal love, tells how, when his family received a basket of pears, the four-year-old Kong Rong gave up the larger pears to his elder brothers and took the smallest for himself. This story is also mentioned in the Three Character Classic, a text used for elementary education since the Song Dynasty.


Early Life and Career

Kong Rong was born in 153 in the former State of Lu (present day southern Shandong and northern parts of Henan, Anhui, and Jiangsu). Kong Rong showed his quick wits at an early age. A famous story about Kong Rong, mentioned in the Three Character Classic, a text used for elementary education since the Song Dynasty, is meant to educate children about the values of courtesy and fraternal love. In the Biography of the Rong Family, it is recorded that there were seven brothers in his family, and Kong Rong was the sixth son. When he was four–years–old, every time the siblings ate pears, his elder brothers always took big ones. He, however, always picked up the smallest pear. When asked about this by the adults of the family, he answered: “I ought to take the small one as I am the youngest child.” He was praised by the clan for his humility and amiability. The moral of the story is that younger brothers or sisters should understand proper etiquette and modestly yield to their elders.

According to the Epilogue of Han (續漢書) by Sima Biao (司馬彪), when he was a teenager, Kong Rong paid a visit to a renowned official named Li Ying (李膺), who received no one but the very eminent and his own relatives. Kong Rong insisted on seeing Li Ying, and said to the guard at Li’s gate, “I am a relative of Governor Li’s family, please pass my message to him.” Kong Rong was brought to Li Ying, who asked how they were related. Kong Rong answered, “My ancestor Confucius and your ancestor Lao Zi once had the relationship of student and advisor and they were also friends. So, your family and my family have had a good relationship for generations.” The people who were present marveled at the young boy’s intelligence. Another guest was not impressed, however, and commented that a person who showed great ability at a young age might not grow up to be especially capable. Kong Rong immediately retorted, saying, "I suppose you were really smart when you were young." Li Ying laughed at this and predicted the child would grow up to be a great man.[1]

When he grew older, Kong Rong entered the bureaucratic system of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He was successively promoted and in 190 was appointed as the governor of Beihai Commandery, which was situated in Qingzhou, the region most heavily affected by the Yellow Turban Rebellion of the 180s. Upon taking up office, Kong Rong concentrated on reconstruction of the city and establishment of schools. He promoted Confucian studies and provided proper burial for deceased refugees who did not have family members to arrange their funerals. During this time, however, he was besieged by an army consisting of the remnant of Yellow Turban rebels led by Guan Hai (管亥). Kong Rong sent Taishi Ci (太史慈) to seek help from Liu Bei (劉備), who was the governor of Pingyuan County (平原) at that time. Taishi Ci came back with 3,000 elite troops, whereupon the rebels dispersed. In 195, Kong Rong was further elevated to governor of the entire Qingzhou at the recommendation of Liu Bei.

Stay in Xuchang

During the next year, however, the powerful warlord Yuan Shao (袁紹) sent his eldest son Yuan Tan to take over Qingzhou. Kong Rong was defeated and his family was captured. He escaped to the capital Xuchang, where he was subsequently appointed the Privy Treasurer (少府). During his stay in Xuchang, Kong Rong often opposed the policies of the chancellor Cao Cao, the de facto ruler who held Emperor Xian under his control. When Cao Cao imposed a ban on alcohol due to a shortage of crops, Kong Rong wrote to him, retorting, "Since the kings Jie (桀) and Zhou (帝辛) (last rulers of the Xia Dynasty (夏朝) and the Shang Dynasty (商朝) or Yin Dynasty (殷代) respectively) were overthrown due to their desire for women, why don't you ban marriage as well?" Kong Rong was then stripped of his official post but soon reinstated, although to a mere titular position. However, because of his hospitality, his house was always filled with guests.

During this time Kong Rong befriended Mi Heng (彌衡), a talented man from Jingzhou (荆州, present day Hubei and Hunan). Despite being very learned, Mi Heng was unconventional and unconstrained. Upon reaching Xuchang, he wrote a prose essay putting down every eminent person there. When asked whom he would consider talented, Mi Heng replied, "First there is Kong Rong, second there is Yang Xiu (楊修)." Kong Rong tried to recommend him to Cao Cao, but Mi Heng first played a drum naked at a feast hosted by Cao Cao before many guests, and then criticized Cao Cao loudly outside the latter's doors. Unwilling to kill Mi Heng himself, Cao Cao then sent the presumptuous man away to Liu Biao (劉表), governor of Jingzhou.

In 198, Cao Cao was making preparations for an encounter with Yuan Shao along the shores of the Yellow River. Kong Rong took a pessimistic stand, telling Cao Cao's advisor Xun Yu (荀彧) that Yuan Shao would be extremely difficult to defeat as he had ample food supplies, far superior troop strength and many capable and loyal subjects. However, Cao Cao took advantage of Yuan Shao's weaknesses and eventually defeated the latter at the decisive Battle of Guandu (官渡之戰) in 200. Yuan Shao died two years later, leaving his legacy contested between his eldest and youngest sons, Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang ( 袁尚).

In 204, Cao Cao defeated the latter and conquered the city of Ye (鄴), whereupon he married Lady Zhen (甄宓;甄洛), formally Empress Wenzhao (文昭皇后), to his own son, Cao Pi (曹丕). When Kong Rong heard of this, he wrote Cao Cao a letter, saying, "When King Wu of Zhou (周武王) defeated Zhou, he married Daji (妲己), a beautiful consort of Zhou blamed for the downfall of the Shang Dynasty) to (his brother) the Duke of Zhou (周公)." Thinking that Kong Rong had cited a classic text to praise him, Cao Cao asked about the source when he returned, but Kong Rong said, "Seeing what happened in our day, I thought it must have been the same then."


In 208, Kong Rong spoke ill of Cao Cao before an emissary from Sun Quan (孫權), a powerful warlord occupying southeast China. Cao Cao then sentenced him to death. According to the Spring and Autumn Annals of Wei (魏氏春秋) by Sun Sheng (孫盛), Kong Rong's two eight-year-old sons (a nine-year-old son and a seven-year-old daughter according to the Book of Later Han, 後漢書”) were calmly playing a game of Go when their father was arrested. When others urged them to escape, they answered:

How could there be unbroken eggs under a toppled nest? (安有巢毀而卵不破者乎)

This later became a Chinese idiom (覆巢之下,安有完卵), used to signify that when a group suffers, all individuals belonging to it will be affected. An alternate but similar story can also be found in A New Account of the Tales of the World by Liu Yiqing (劉義慶), which is probably more novelistic and less credible.

After Kong Rong was executed along with his entire family, his body was left in the streets. Not a single court official who used to be close to him dared to collect the corpses for burial except Zhi Xi (脂習), who fell over Kong Rong's body and wept, crying, "Now you have left me for death, who can I talk to that would understand me?"

Literary Achievement

Although he did not meet with much success in politics, Kong Rong was undeniably a leading literary figure of his time, famed for his prose as well as his poems. His poems, along with those of six other poets of his time, formed the backbone of what was to be known as the jian'an style (建安风骨; jian'an is the Chinese era name for the period between 196 and 220). Collectively these poets were known as the Seven Scholars of Jian'an (建安七子). The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the jian'an poems their characteristic solemn yet stirring tone, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the jian'an poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry.

Kong Rong's outstanding literary skills, however, were often thought to be an elaborate but empty façade not supported by sound reason. Cao Pi commented in his A Discourse on Literature (典論) that Kong Rong's words could not hold discourses and surpassed their reasoning, so much so that they almost seem like mere sarcasm or mockery.

After Kong Rong’s death, Cao Pi collected 25 of his poems and included them in A Discourse on Literature. However, most of these have been lost and only five survive, out of which the authenticity of two has not been verified. Nine volumes containing Kong Rong's prose essays under the Book of Sui (隋書) had also been lost. Those that survived can be found in compilations from the Ming and Qing Dynasty. These include several letters Kong Rong wrote to Cao Cao in criticism of the latter's policies.

See also


  1. The story of Kong Rong, The Association for Asian Research.

ISBN links support NWE through referral fees

  • Chen Shou. San Guo Zhi. Yue Lu Shu She, 2002. ISBN 7806651985
  • Dillon, Michael. Dictionary of Chinese history. London: F. Cass, 1979. ISBN 978-0714631073
  • Ebrey, Patricia Buckley. Chinese civilization and society a sourcebook. New York: Free Press, 1981. ISBN 978-0029087503
  • Morton, W. Scott, and Charlton M. Lewis. China: its history and culture. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. ISBN 978-0071412797
  • Peterson, William J. The Cambridge History of China. Cambridge University Press, 2002. ISBN 978-0521243346

External links

All links retrieved April 23, 2018.

Prominent people of the Three Kingdoms Era
Rulers Han: Emperor Ling - Emperor Shao (Prince of Hongnong) - Emperor Xian
Wei: Cao Cao - Cao Pi - Cao Rui - Cao Fang - Cao Mao - Cao Huan
Shu: Liu Bei - Liu Shan
Wu: Sun Jian - Sun Ce - Sun Quan - Sun Liang - Sun Xiu - Sun Hao
Jin: Sima Yan

Others: Dong Zhuo - Gongsun Zan - Han Fu - Liu Biao - Liu Yao - Liu Zhang - Lü Bu - Ma Teng - Meng Huo - Yuan Shao - Yuan Shu - Zhang Jiao - Zhang Lu

Advisors Wei: Guo Jia - Jia Xu - Sima Shi - Sima Yi - Sima Zhao - Xu You - Xu Shu - Xun You - Xun Yu - Dong Zhao - Mi Heng
Shu: Fei Yi - Jiang Wan - Jiang Wei - Pang Tong - Zhuge Liang
Wu: Gu Yong - Lu Su - Lu Kang - Lu Xun - Zhang Zhao - Zhou Yu - Zhuge Jin - Zhuge Ke
Others: Chen Gong - Li Ru - Li Su - Tian Feng
Generals Wei: Dian Wei - Xiahou Dun - Xiahou Yuan - Xu Chu - Xu Huang - Zhang He - Zhang Liao
Shu: Guan Ping - Guan Xing - Guan Yu - Huang Zhong - Ma Chao - Wei Yan - Zhang Fei - Zhao Yun
Wu: Gan Ning - Huang Gai - Ling Tong - Lü Meng - Taishi Ci - Xu Sheng - Zhou Tai - Zhu Ran
Others: He Jin - Hua Xiong - Ji Ling - Wen Chou - Yan Liang
Others Diaochan - Guan Lu - Hua Tuo - Sima Hui - Sun Shangxiang


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