The Seven Bamboo Sages (竹林七贤 zhú lín qī xián) took pleasure in alcohol-fueled philosophical debates and musical/poetic expression, secluded in the bamboo forests of northwest Henan. Insiders turned outsiders, they represented freedom during one of the most eccentric times in China. Their conduct was less “Fight the Power” or “Give Peace A Chance” than avoidance or indifference, which during this age, could be twisted into a sign of civil disobedience.
“Ji Kang was “majestically towering, like a solitary pine tree standing alone, but when drunk, he leans crazily like a jade mountain about to collapse.”
Multitalented and articulate, Ji Kang was a master of the 古琴 gǔ qín – the seven string “instrument of the sages” – as well as an avid metalworker and alchemist. His impressive rhetoric and poetry swayed the minds of many, until government officials made clear their intent to lure this brilliant reprobate back into their ranks.
So Much For Wanting To Be Left Alone
Ji Kang faced intense pressure to conform. His friend Shan Tao, himself a former Sage turned “respectable” again, offered his own position as a saving grace. Ji Kang declined. Three thousand scholars intervened, requesting Ji Kang as their teacher to protect him, a gesture of respect and admiration that the emperor rejected.
Here’s a translated excerpt from Ji Kang’s rebuttal letter to Shan Tao’s job offer, an honest yet incendiary response which sealed Ji Kang’s fate:
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 the 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.
Here’s the Chinese version:
Before his execution, Ji Kang implored Shan Tao to look out for his children, an appeal which Shan Tao honored. Historians recount their relationship as a prime example of 君子和而不同 jūn zǐ hé ér bù tóng “harmony with disagreements between gentlemen.”
We can almost hear his guqin and poetic verse echoing through the ages imploring us all to follow our bliss.