There were hippies in China over 1700 years ago. We’re talking freedom-loving hedonists who wanted to escape from restrictive Confucian officialdom during the brief Three Kingdoms (220–280) period. Daoism, with its connection to nature, was a much better fit for this lot, and provided a framework beyond their worldly frustrations.

The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (竹林七贤, Zhúlín Qīxián) were a group of writers, musicians, and scholars from multiple generations, teenagers up to forty-somethings, so named because they took pleasure in alcohol-fueled philosophical debates and poetic expression secluded in the bamboo forests of northwest Henan. Insiders turned outsiders, they represented Epicurean liberation during a post-Han era of power battles, conspiracy theories, and multiple coups d’état.

Their eccentric, indulgent conduct was less “Fight the Power” civil disobedience and “Give Peace A Chance” idealism than it was pragmatic avoidance of dangerous political entanglements. As the old saying goes, “Being close to the emperor is like being close to a tiger.”

None But Ourselves Can Free Our Minds

Ji Kang (嵇康, Jī Kāng, 223–262) was the spiritual ringleader of the Seven Sages. Articulate and multitalented, he was a master of the guqin, a plucked seven-string instrument often associated with Confucian scholarly refinement. Ji Kang was the quintessential Daoist who preferred to compose music and explore philosophy rather than get caught up in the rat race. Ji Kang’s impressive rhetoric and poetry swayed the minds of many, until government officials made clear their intent to lure this reprobate back into their ranks.

A man without ideals is not a man.
― Ji Kang

Ruan Ji (阮籍, Ruǎn Jí, 210–263), a son of a famous scholar and a recognized poet in his own right, developed an uncanny ability to avoid aristocratic obligations by cultivating the image of a drunken madman. When confronted by a ruling family’s demands for his daughter’s hand in marriage, Ruan Ji remained drunk for two months until the family gave up attempting to communicate with him. Some historians recount a more serious side of Ruan Ji, a man who would shut himself away for days on end to read the classic philosophers, in search of insight and truth in what he saw as an imperfect world.

The older and more responsible Shan Tao (山涛, Shān Tāo, 205–283) bounced back and forth between the Bamboo Grove and officialdom to pursue career ambitions. Ji Kang detested Shan Tao’s overly pragmatic behavior, since Shan Tao was the one who united the Sages as refugees of the system.

Surely you do not mean to suggest that the rules of propriety apply to me.
― Ruan Ji

Shan Tao’s wife, Lady Han, once queried her husband about his close relationship with Ji Kang and Ruan Ji. Shan Tao explained that they’re the only people with whom he wanted to be friends. Still curious, she secured his permission to spy on the other men that night. Returning to her bedroom at dawn, Lady Han confided to her husband that she had peeped through a hole drilled in the wall to observe Ji Kang and Ruan Ji. She noted their powerful connection, declaring that Shan Tao was their equal in intellect alone.

The big drinker of the group, Liu Ling (刘伶, Líu Líng, 221–300), was less intellectual but lightened the mood with his penchant for singing poetry and stumbling around naked. When puzzled guests inquired about this odd habit, Liu Ling responded, “Heaven and Earth are my home, and my house is my pants, so what are you all doing here between my legs?”

Liu Ling also enjoyed riding in a deer-drawn carriage, jug of grain wine in hand, like some kind of bad Santa slurring “Hao hao hao!” (Good good good!) instead of “Ho ho ho!” To his entourage he instructed, “If I drink myself to death, you guys bury me,” and to his wife, “When I die, bury me with wine fermenting over my head.”

So Much For Wanting To Be Left Alone

Ji Kang didn’t do himself any favors by refusing invitations to rejoin the government. Soon he faced a charge of “perversion of public morals,” or, in more common parlance, treason. To shelter Ji Kang from certain death, Shan Tao even offered his own official position to Ji Kang. Three thousand students from the Imperial College gathered at the site of his beheading to request Ji Kang as their teacher and a waiver of the severe penalty, a gesture of respect and admiration that the Jin emperor rejected.

Ji Kang declined the job offer in a letter to Shan Tao which contained the following list:

“The Seven Things I Cannot Stand”

  1. I like to sleep late, but if I become an official, attendants will wake me early, and this is the first thing I cannot stand.
  2. I like to play my guqin, shoot birds and catch fish, but if I become an official, attendants will set limits on my movement, and this is the second thing I cannot stand.
  3. If I take the position, I have to sit straight at a desk, legs numb with inactivity, unable to scratch the many fleas under my official’s robe, and this is the third thing I cannot stand.
  4. I’m no good at letter writing, so if I take this position, mail will stack up on my table. And if I don’t socialize, it violates customs and manners, and forcing myself to socialize won’t last, and this is the fourth thing I cannot stand.
  5. I hate funerals, but society takes this tradition seriously, my behavior condemned by people who don’t understand me, trying to hurt me for no reason, and yet I cannot change my nature or this situation, and this is the fifth thing I cannot stand.
  6. I don’t like the masses, but if I take this position, they’ll be forced on me, visitors packing my house, a chaotic noisy environment, subjecting me to all kinds of tricks and scams, and this is the sixth thing I cannot stand.
  7. I was born impatient, but if I take this position, I will be busy all day, petty political chores always on my mind, and socializing will absorb all my free time, and this is the seventh thing I cannot stand.

Knowing the end was near, Ji Kang implored Shan Tao to watch over his children, a request that Shan Tao honored. Historians recount their relationship as a prime example of “harmony with disagreements between gentlemen.”

Ji Kang’s final act before his execution was to play his guqin and sing one last song. His life remains emblematic of an independent-minded scholar who lived life to its fullest, disregarding hollow societal conventions to follow his bliss.

China Simplified: History Flashback
This post excerpted from China Simplified’s new book History Flashback, an entertaining journey through the past to better understand modern China.

Image Credits:
“The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove” painting by Han Min
Sages and Hippies illustration: Yang Kanzhen