The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (Chinese: 竹林七賢) were a group of Chinese Taoist Qingtan scholars, writers, and musicians who came together in the bloody third century C.E. It has been determined that the group is mostly fictitious; although the individual members all probably existed, their interconnection is highly suspect, as are their alleged previous official careers at court. Key members of the group were linked with the "Taoist" Cao Wei, and found their lives to be in danger when the avowedly "Confucian" Jin Dynasty came to power. Xi Kang, Liu Ling, Ruan Ji, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong, and Shan Tao gathered in a bamboo grove near the country house of Xi Kang in Shanyang, where they enjoyed, and praised in their works, the simple, rustic life. 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 inebriated jokesters and eccentrics, others (most notably Wang Rong) eventually capitulated and joined the Jin dynasty. 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").
The Seven Sages’ life of retirement in the countryside became a common theme in Chinese art and a model for later Chinese intellectuals who lived during times of political upheaval.
During the decline of the Han Dynasty, the northern part of China was under the control of Cao Cao, the Imperial Chancellor to the last Han emperor. In 213, he was titled the "Duke of Wei" and given ten cities as his domain. This area was named the "State of Wei." At that time, the southern part of China was already divided into two areas controlled by two warlords (later the Kingdom of Shu and Kingdom of Wu). In 216, Cao Cao was promoted to "King of Wei."
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. 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. 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.
Taoism (or Daoism) is the English name referring to a variety of related Chinese philosophical traditions and concepts which influenced East Asia for over two thousand years (Miller 2003). Taoist propriety and ethics emphasized the Three Jewels of the Tao: compassion, moderation, and humility. Taoist thought focused on wu wei ("non-action"), spontaneity, humanism, and emptiness. An emphasis was placed on the connection between people and nature. Taoism taught that this affinity with nature lessened the need for rules and order, and led to a better understanding of the world.
The character Tao 道 (or Dao, depending on the romanization scheme) means "path" or "way," but in Chinese religion and philosophy it has taken on more abstract meanings (LaFargue 1994). The word "Taoism" is used to translate different Chinese terms. Daojiao/Taochiao (道教 "teachings/religion of the Dao") refers to Daoism as a religion. Daojia/Taochia (道家 "school of the Dao") refers to the studies of scholars, or "philosophical" Daoism (Kirkland 2004).
Most traditional Chinese Taoists are polytheistic; nature and ancestor spirits are common in popular Taoism. Organized Taoism distinguishes its ritual activity from that of the folk religion, which some professional Taoists (Daoshi) view as a sort of shamanism. "Elite" Taoists place an emphasis on internal alchemy, self discipline and concentrated thought.
Chinese alchemy, astrology, cuisine, several Chinese martial arts, Chinese traditional medicine, fengshui, and many styles of qigong breath training disciplines are intertwined with Taoism throughout history.
Qingtan', Wade-Giles: Ch'ing-t'an), translated a "pure conversation," was a movement related to Taoism during the Wei-Chin period of the Northern dynasties which advocated freedom of individual expression and escape from the restrictions corrupt court politics. The most prominent of these groups was the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove. “Pure conversation” has often been compared to the Zen practice of koan, meditation on an esoteric phrase until a deeper level of understanding is achieved.
The Seven Sages (or Seven Worthies) of the Bamboo Grove are seven well-known scholars and artists who lived around Loyang (in modern Henan province) during the troubled times when the Wei dynasty was giving way to the Western Jin. There seems to be no surviving contemporary evidence that they considered themselves as a group, but later accounts portray them gathering in the nearby countryside, perhaps near Shanyang across the Yangzi river northeast of Luoyang, where they engaged in various refined activities including music and "pure conversation."
As 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 country house of Xi Kang (Ji Kang, Hsi K'ang, 223–262) in Shanyang, where they enjoyed, and praised in their works, the simple, rustic life. The poems and essays of the Seven Sages and other contemporary poets frequently alluded to the impossibility of palace life for the scholar, and to the pleasures and hardships of country life. The Seven Sages emphasized the enjoyment of ale, personal freedom, spontaneity and a celebration of nature, in contrast to the corruption and politics of court life.
Liu Ling, Ruan Ji, Ruan Xian, Xiang Xiu, Wang Rong and Shan Tao were the other six sages who made up the group. A collection of anecdotes about their life style is extant. The two Ruans were known for drinking wine from a large bowl, which they would occasionally share with the neighbors' pigs. Of Ruan Hsien, it is related that as a host, he offended against all principles of etiquette by leaving his guests and riding after his eloping mistress. Liu Ling is said to have traveled in the company of a servant who always carried a bottle of wine and a spade so that he could instantly supply his master with drink or bury him without delay, if worst came to worst. Liu Ling would normally wear no clothes at home and explained to a Confucian visitor that he considered the whole universe his home, and his room his trousers.
The group's life of retirement in the countryside became a common theme for art and a model for later Chinese intellectuals who lived during times of political upheaval. An important theme in fine art, starting perhaps a century later, was a set of illustrations called “The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and Rong Qiqi” (who in fact lived much earlier.) The earliest example survives in a molded-brick relief from a tomb in the Nanjing area. Within a few generations, artists and intellectuals were so inspired by the supposedly anarchist revelry of the Seven Sages that they sought to emulate them fully. The Seven Sages became a symbolic influence on Chinese poetry, music, art, and culture. Their independent behavior contested the long-held Confucian ideal of virtue earned through public service, and suggested, instead, that self-perfection came through the cultivation of individuality. The idea of retiring from public life to pursue the cultivation of the self appealed both to those who were alienated from political affairs and to those who were motivated by religious practice or aesthetics. Zen monasteries and their patrons, for example, often commissioned seven sages paintings. In Japan, this theme was popular among members of the governing samurai class who also gathered in villas and teahouses to cultivate their personal interests in poetry, music, painting, and the tea ceremony.
Xi Kang or Ji Kang or Hsi K'ang (223–262), the alleged host of the group, was a Chinese author, poet, Taoist philosopher, musician, and alchemist who wrote on longevity, music theory, politics and ethics. Among his works were Yangsheng Lun (Essay on Nourishing Life), Shengwu Aile Lun (On the Absence of Sentiments in Music), Qin Fu (A Composition on the Qin), and Shisi Lun (Discourse on Individuality). As a musician, Xi Kang composed a number of solo pieces for Qin.
Xi Kang was born into a wealthy and influential family, received a traditional Confucian education, married into the Imperial family, and was given an appointment as a high official. He felt strongly drawn toward Taoism and practiced the technique of "nourishing the life principle" (yang-hsing). After extensive travels, during which he made the acquaintance of immortals (hsien), he and his wife settled at his estate in what is now Ho-nan and gathered a group of friends. Xi's poems and essays mingled serious thoughts with humorous descriptions of his own eccentricities. He advocated transcending morality and institutions to follow the laws of nature, and declared that all distinctions between rich and poor, weak and powerful, and right and wrong should be eliminated. Xi Kang was highly critical of Confucianism and was considered scandalous and seditious because he challenged many social conventions of his time. He went against that Confucian concept that the educated classes should not engage in manual labor by becoming an accomplished metalworker and conducting alchemical studies.
Xi Kang was sentenced to death after offending Zhong Hui and Sima Zhao by his lack of ceremony, and calmly played his lute as he awaited execution. Several thousand of his followers strongly protested his execution, which attested to the real dangers that motivated the Seven Sages' retirement from court life.
A pair of stamped-brick murals from the Southern Dynasties during the second half of the fifth century, excavated at Xishanqiao, Nanjin, Jiangsu Province in 1960, depicts the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, illustrating a dramatic shift in the social attitudes of the Chinese elite. While previous Confucian tomb sculptures featured filial sons and virtuous rulers in rigid, stylistic poses, the Sages are depicted in relaxed postures, playing the qin (zither) or lute, savoring food or wine, or lounging in various states of inebriation. Each sage is identified by name in writing, along with Rong Qiji (551–479 B.C.E.), a contemporary of Confucius who was said to have become an immortal.
Versions of these murals decorated numerous tombs in southern China. Each mural consists of more than one hundred bricks arranged in alternating horizontal and vertical sequences. Traces of paint reveal that the murals were once brightly colored.
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