Ruǎn Jí (Yuan Ji or Yuan Chi) (Chinese: 阮籍) was an eccentric third century Chinese poet and one of the famous Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. Against the background of the fall of the Han dynasty and the rise of the Three Kingdoms Period, Ruan ji wrote lyrical poetry and essays containing veiled criticism of Confucian dogmatism and official corruption, and illustrating the contrast between the ideal and reality. Ruan Ji’s fame rests upon Yonghuai shi (Poems from My Heart), an almanac of eighty-two pentameter poems written in a unique style. Ruan Ji also left six fu, various essays, and a long prose work, Daren xiansheng zhuan (Biography of Master Great Man). Although he frequently referred to Daoist tradition, Ruan Ji was not necessarily a Daoist; he took what he thought was most important from the ancient Daoist philosophers, in essence, “looking for truth inside himself.”
Historically, Ruan Ji has been held up as an “ideal man” who refused to compromise himself and retired from life as a public official to live in the countryside and pursue his interests while enjoying nature, wine and the company of other intellectuals. Numerous anecdotes illustrate his flagrant defiance of Confucian norms and his profound insights and wisdom. Together with the other “Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove,” he was a favorite theme for Chinese essays, poetry, and painting. He is associated with the guqin melody, Jiu Kuang ("Drunken Ecstasy"), which was believed to be composed by him.
The life and creative work of Ruan Ji (210-263) (阮籍）is associated with a crucial and dramatic period in China history, which was followed by significant changes in political and social life. After the Han dynasty (206 B.C.E.–220 C.E.) brutally suppressed the “Yellow Turban Rebellion,” unrest among the peasantry increased, and warlords fought for the throne. Confucian traditions of ritual piety, philanthropy, reverence for the legendary rulers of ancient China, and respect for government officials were replaced with fear and uncertainty. The warlord and poet Cao Cao (曹操) united the north of fallen empire. On March 15, 220, Cao Cao died and his son, Cao Pi, succeeded to the title "King of Wei" and the position as Imperial Chancellor. Later that year, on December 11, Cao Pi seized the imperial throne and claimed to have founded the Wei Dynasty (曹魏). Liu Bei of Shu Han immediately contested his claim to the throne, and Sun Quan of Eastern Wu followed suit in 222. Wei conquered Shu Han in 263. Almost simultaneously, there appeared another two kingdoms, Shu in the south-west and Wu kingdom in the south of China, beginning the Three Kingdoms period. Shortly afterwards, in 265, the Wei dynasty was overthrown by its last Imperial Chancellor, Sima Yan, grandson of Sima Yi, who then founded the Jin Dynasty.
Ruan Ji witnessed bloody wars, the fight among the lords of Wei for the throne, the end of the Cao family dynasty, and China's short-lived unification under the Sima family. Despite the political and social turmoil, it was a period of intellectual achievement. The intellectual life of the time was characterized by discussions of metaphysics, the practice of qingtan (“pure discussion”), the popularity of Daoism, and the spread of Buddhism, a profound interest in defining the “highest purpose,” the rapid expansion of lyrical poetry and the flourishing of all fine arts, from painting to architecture.
The invention of cheap paper in the second century encouraged the spread of literacy among a larger segment of the population, and gave rise to a large increase in the number of educated people who sought an understanding of truth, goodness, justice, and virtue. The heroes of the day became men of irreproachable virtue who remained true to their principles and preferred a quiet existence in the countryside or a hermit’s life to the brilliance of court life. This ideal of the “sublime man” (Junzi; 君子）implied an attitude of protest against the iniquities of the government, masked by an external appearance of unconcern; and a character of humility and integrity. According to this ideal, the life of court officials was “the life of dust and dirt,” and the real dirt of peasant labor was a symbol of purity.
Ruan Ji was born into a prominent family. His father, the poet Ruan Yu, died when he was only four, and he grew up in impoverished circumstances. He served as a government official, but did not play an active part in political life. Instead, he preoccupied himself with philosophy and religion, and veiled his criticisms in allegory, appearing to be nonchalant. On one occasion, he avoided a proposed marriage alliance which he considered distasteful, by remaining inebriated for sixty days. Eventually he retired to the countryside, where he wrote poetry, appreciated nature, and spent his time in the company of fellow poets and writers. He was the most prominent member of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, a group of third century poets and philosophers who gathered in a bamboo grove near the country house of Xi Kang in Shanyang, where they enjoyed drinking and the simple, rustic life.
Among the others were Ji Kang, Shan Tao (山濤), Liu Ling (劉伶), Ruan Xian (阮咸), Xiang Xiu (向秀), and Wang Rong (王戎). The group became symbolic of the Daoist ideal of “quite uninhibitedly enjoying” the free concord of free men, who were gifted with enough hidden wisdom “to be together, not being together,” and “act jointly, not acting jointly.” The cup of wine, which became a symbol of “contemplating wonder,” united them more than any philosophical principles. Ruan Ji does not mention the “Bamboo Grove” in his writing, although this group was central to his quest for true friendship.
Ruan Ji is considered the greatest poet of his epoch. In The Categories of Poems, Zhong Rong (fl. 502–519) places the poetry of Ruan Ji in the highest rank of poetry, saying, “…his poetry can strengthen one’s temper and spirit, can cast a deep thoughtful mood,… but the meaning of his poetry is hard to understand.” Ruan Ji’s fame rests upon Yonghuai shi (Poems from my heart), a collection of eighty-two pentameter poems written in a unique style. Ruan Ji also left six fu, various essays, and a long prose work, Daren xiansheng zhuan (Biography of Master Great Man).
Ruan Ji’s writings reveal different sides of his inner world. His philosophical essays, such as, "About Penetration into the Book of Changes,” “About Music,” “About Penetration into Laozi,” and “About understanding Zhuangzi( 莊子),” explore ideas on the nature of a world order. His poetry reveals biting, caustic, angry criticism of Confucian dogmatists and rulers, and the simultaneous glorification of the joy of of “carefree wandering.” His works are an expression of the conflict between the concept of a junzi (ideal man, 君子) and the cruel and turbulent political and social reality.
In Biography of Master Great Man, Ruan Ji reveals his innermost thoughts through his description of a nameless hermit: “Ten thousand li (里) were for him as one step, thousands of years, as one morning. He pursued nothing, stopped for nothing; he existed in search of Great Dao, and nowhere got shelter… Self-lovers (egoists) scolded and abused him, ignoramuses reproached him, but no one knew the refined wanderings of his Spirit. But the old man didn’t betray his pursuit, despite being abused and misunderstood by society…”
In this composition, Ruan Ji ridicules Confucian morals and rituals. “A ruler appeared, and at once cruelty flourished; vassals came into being and at once faithlessness and betrayal appeared. Rituals and laws were established, but people are bound and are not free. The ignorant are cheated, the simple people are duped, men hide their knowledge in order to appear wise. The powerful ones are ruling and committing outrages, the weak ones are afraid and servile. Those who appear disinterested, are in fact grasping. Those who are insidious inside, are amiable and polite outside. If you committed a crime, don’t regret it; if you got good fortune, don’t enjoy it…”
Ruan Ji frequently referred to Daoist tradition, but was not necessarily a Daoist. He took what he thought was most important from the ancient Daoist philosophers, in essence, “looking for truth inside himself.” His works did not mention the people he lived among or his own life circumstances; instead he used anonymous characters such as a hero, a hermit, a Confucian, a saint, or a sage, or examples from long-ago ancestors. Even the geographical names he used were not modern, but ancient ones.
Ruan Ji often contrasted the beauty of a moment with the inevitable “emptiness” of death, with images such as bright flowers blooming on old graves:
Bushes of flowers
Leafy blooming in graves…
(translated by Aleksey Pashkovsky)
His poems frequently illustrated the contrast between illusory “life” and the mundaneness of everyday matters, the glory of a hero and solitude of a hermit, the passion of love and the inevitability of separation. All of his lyrical poetry is tinged with sorrow. He wrote, “Only with sorrow thoughts are occurring, without sorrow there is no thoughtful mood…” In the first poem of his almanac, “Poems From my Heart,” Ruan Ji talks about this sad thought:
Being sleepless at midnight,
I rise to play lute.
The moon is visible through the curtains
And a gentle breeze sways the cords of my robe.
A lonely wild goose cries in the wilderness
And is echoed by birds in the woods.
As it circles, it gazes
At me, alone, imbued with sadness
(translated by Michael Bullock).
Ruan Ji’s life itself became the subject of legend and tradition, and an example to be analyzed and followed. Chen Shou’s Records of Three Kingdoms (third century) described Ruan Ji as, “…highly talented, having an ability to avoid the chains of court morality and traditions, but unbalanced and undisciplined; he was eager to banish his temptations. Ruan Ji honored the ancient Daoist sage Zhuangzi( 莊子).” In the History of the Jin Dynasty it is written, "The appearance of Ruan Ji was uncommon, stubborn and self-willed, tempermental, proud and independent. Following only the gusts of his soul… Sometimes he would wander away in the hills and forget to return, and at length come back crying bitterly; at other times he would shut himself up with his books and see no one for months. He read a great deal and especially liked Laozi ( 老子) and Zhuangzi. He drank a lot, he possessed the skill of whistling and loved to play the Qin (琴). Once inspired by an idea, he forgot about everything else in the world. Many considered him to be a madman.”
In Chinese traditional thinking there are three opinions about Ruan Ji. One is wholly negative and portrays him as inspiring only vicious “dissoluteness.” A second considers him as an agent of disruption and “disturbance.” Zhen Yu wrote, “Many consider Ruan Ji to be dissolute and unrestrained, but that is an insufficient opinion… When he was not talking about the imperfections of others, he looked at them only with the whites of his eyes. Is this not an address to the world of mankind? In mourning, he ate meat and drank wine, groaned and vomited blood—isn’t that concern for man's Dao (way)? At that time the reigning powers were cruel and unforgiving… but Ruan Ji died a natural death—isn’t that the wisdom of self preservation?” A third opinion is that Ruan Ji was a wise man who penetrated the hidden meaning of Daoism. Cui ShuLiang wrote about him, “Ruan Ji stood above all the mankind, being 'out of validity and invalidity,' none was able 'achieve his greatness, and measure the depth of his thoughts;' he grasped the 'ultimate beginning of all matters.' The poet Wang Ji praised him as the 'first man, after the legendary ancient rulers, who found the way to a paradise of universal careless intoxication.'"
Fu Yi, who describes Ruan Ji as a connoisseur of ancient essays, mentioned that the “poet with diligence was engaged in sciences” and until nightfall was reading books. This quiet solitude and obsession with perceiving the knowledge of ancients was his hidden source of inspiration. The path to official fame and renown was open to Ruan Ji, but from the beginning he despised the career of a government official. One of his biographers said, “Ji in the beginning tried to improve the world, but lived on the boundary of Wei and Jin. In China (天下), there were little Junzi (ideal individuals), who preserved themselves. Because of that Ji abandoned his affairs, and was intoxicated all the time.”
One anecdote describes Ruan Ji’s visit to the hermit Sun Deng, with whom he tried in vain to start a conversation on the inner alchemy of Daoism. Deng never responded. Finally, Ji gave out a long howling whistle and withdrew. Climbing halfway up a mountain, Ji thought he heard a sound echoing through the rocky ravine. It was Deng whistling in response."
Numerous anecdotes document Ruan Ji’s disregard for the norms of Confucius. One day when the court was told about a son who killed his mother, Ruan Ji exclaimed: “Ha! If he gone so far as to kill his mother, he could easily allow himself to kill his father too.” All who heard this “lost their gift of talking” and demanded an explanation, because “the killing of a father is the worst crime in the Empire (天下); how could you say that such a thing is possible?” Ruan Ji replied, “Animals and birds know their mothers, but are unaware of their fathers. Killing a father means acting naturally, without affection, like those animals and birds, but one who kills his own mother is even worse then an animal.” The chronicler added that “no one could object to his words.”
It was not only in court that Ruan Ji defied Confucian norms. One story tells that he was playing chess when received news about death of his mother. His chess partner asked him to end the game, but Ruan Ji cold-bloodedly finished the game, then drank two measures of wine and started to groan. At the funeral he “wept so violently, that he brought up several pints of blood. He did not mourn and, despite observing the decencies, ate meat and drank wine. When insincere people came to support him, he showed them only the whites of his eyes. When his friend Ji Kang (嵇康, 223-262) came, carrying along with him a jar of wine and a Qin, Juan Ri welcomed him with the pupils of his eyes showing and met him with happiness.”
In a forest lives one rare bird.
She calls herself fairy bird feng.
At the bright morning she drinks from pure springs.
At the evening she flies away to the pikes of far mountains.
Her hoot reaches remote lands.
By straining neck, she sees all eight deserts.
She rushes together with autumn wind,
Strong wings putting together,
She will blow away to west to Kunlun Mountains,
When she will be back?
But she hates all kind of places and titles,
Her heart is tormented by sorrow and anguish
(Ruan Ji, translated by Aleksey Pashkovsky).
Ruan Ji was an accomplished player of the qin (guqin; 古琴; "ancient stringed instrument"), the modern name for a plucked seven-string Chinese musical instrument of the zither family (中華絃樂). He is associated with the guqin melody, Jiu Kuang ("Drunken Ecstasy") which was believed to be composed by him. In third century China, music was a matter of national importance. The qin ( 琴) and flute were given the same status as the writing brush, ink, and paper as a means of self-expression. Ruan Ji regarded music as an expression of the ideal of harmony. He looked at music not as sounds, but as something inherent in the world, and linked music with “natural way” (道). Ruan Ji did not like music that expressed inconstant feelings, even those of sorrow or joy, particularly if those temporary emotions evoked pleasure. He explained his understanding of music with a example from Confucius, life: ”Once, Confucius in state of Qi heard ancient music, and for three months he did not know the taste of meat. Ruan Ji explained that perfect music does not arouse desires. It makes the heart serene, the spirit placid, and then the taste of meat (the base, physical world) is unknown.”
ReferencesISBN links support NWE through referral fees
- Holzman, Donald and Ji Ruan. 1976. Poetry and Politics the Life and Works of Juan Chi, A.D. 210-263. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521208556
- Mair, Victor H. and Ji Ruan. 1987. Four Introspective Poets a Concordance to Selected Poems by Roan Jyi, Chern Tzyy-arng, Jang Jeouling, and Lii Bor. Tempe, Ariz: Center for Asian Studies, Arizona State University. ISBN 0939252171
- Ruan, Ji. 1988. Songs of my Heart Yong Huai Shi: The Chinese Lyric Poetry of Ruan Ji. London: Wellsweep. ISBN 0948454008
|Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove : 竹林七賢|
|Ruan Ji 阮籍 | Xi Kang 嵇康 | Shan Tao 山濤 | Liu Ling 劉伶 | Ruan Xian 阮咸 | Xiang Xiu 向秀 | Wang Rong 王戎|
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