Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove
In an essay that I’ve mentioned once or twice before, “Fourier! – Or, the Utopian Poetics,” Peter Lamborn Wilson situates Fourier, the utopian visionary, in the Taoist tradition, specifically, “the Taoist emphasis on spontaneity, work-as-play, wealth, health, longevity, sexual ‘alchemy,’ complex cuisine, and even sensual pleasure.” Here, he uses an important footnote: “Taoism is not a monolithic tradition; not every Taoist maintains all these values. I’m thinking particularly of such poets/bon-vivants/’madmen’ as the famous Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.”
I find this information important for two reasons; first, for clarification — to portray all of those focal points as essential to all Taoists would be to paint a seriously misleading picture. Secondly, if there were Taoists who did actually subscribe to all or most of those values, I would want to know about them. And that’s how I become interested in the so-called Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove.
Not a huge amount of information about the Seven Sages as a collective unit exists online, beyond basic encyclopedic resources. China Central Television (CCTV) has an interesting — though fairly repetitive and a bit disorganized — video series that puts perspective on the Sages’ individual stories and common “ground,” as well as their relationship to the bigger picture of Chinese history in the 3rd century. The whole series runs close to three hours. (If one wanted to save some time and simply watch the “best” of it, I would recommend watching the first two parts, and maybe the fourth as well.)
In a nutshell, the Sages were seven artists, musicians, poets, and scholars, living in a time of political instability from which they wanted to escape as much as possible. They also wanted to embrace the Taoist ideal of “returning to nature.” They wanted to live in freedom — and accordingly, far away from official city/state business. They found a bamboo grove near Yuntai Mountain which fulfilled their desires for nature and seclusion, and at the same time, had close proximity to a postal road, for important news or other pertinent information about the outside world. They met there often to talk, drink, write, and enjoy their natural surroundings.
This sketch covers the basic information available about the Seven Sages as a collective. The individuals who comprised the group, however, left their own legacies. Two, in particular, led fairly unusual lives, at different ends of the spectrum in relation to the political turbulence of the times.
Ruan Ji, a poet and a musician (and an especially excellent whistler), became involved in politics, though he tried to avoid it, as a way of surviving the shift in power from the Cao clan to the Sima clan in the middle of the 3rd century. As a means of maintaining rule, the Sima clan pushed Confucian values, filial piety in particular, on the public. These values did not jive with the Taoism of the Seven Sages. Ruan Ji accepted official posts, so as not to find himself on the wrong side of a combative regime, but did his best to live as freely as possible. For instance, in his brief stint as governor of Dongping, he had all the government office walls removed, ostensibly for “more transparency” in government. He really just wanted to make his life “simple and natural” — his Taoist ideal — as it was in the Bamboo Grove.
We can shed a little more light on Ruan Ji’s ideal by discussing his spiritual quest for a practical application of Laozi‘s return to “Mother Nature.” This quest led him into the mountains to meet Sun Deng, a rather mythical hermit (and not the crown prince). Ruan Ji asked him about “letting things take their own course.” Sun Deng seemed not to hear his question and did not reply. Ruan Ji, disappointed, turned to leave. As he went on his way, he heard a great whistling behind him . . . it seemed to emanate not from Sun Deng’s mouth, but from his belly. Ruan Ji laughed at this. Whistling had long been a form of amusement for people of the mountains and political refugees, one that Ruan Ji had (however intuitively or subconsciously) carried on. Hearing Sun Deng’s belated response to his question was enough for Ruan Ji. It gave him a less serious and more organic outlook. The Sage said of the hermit, “He took heaven and earth as his dwelling place.”
While Ruan Ji found ways to live his own way despite the difficulties of the times — even going so far as to embrace his status as an eccentric or a drunkard — his fellow Sage (and reputed lover), Ji Kang, took a different course. Also known as Xi Kang, he played a mean zither, composed music, and wrote poetry. For artists, philosophers, and scholars alike, poetry provided an outlet to express subtle dissidence toward the ruling clan — with less fear of serious repercussions. Ji Kang used poetry in this way, but also as a paean to nature. His doctrine consisted of “following nature,” not contradicting it. The same went for his music. He called music “a blessing from Mother Nature, like a fragrance in the air.”
Ji Kang, along with fellow Sage (and Zhuangzi commentator) Xiang Xiu, also became a talented blacksmith. When he gave away the tools that he made, he never accepted money — only wine and a chicken — which he would share with the recipient of the tool anyway. He and Xiang Xiu participated in elaborate discussions of medicine and healthcare. Whereas Xiang Xiu believed more in fate, Ji Kang, not interested in life after death, put his focus on longevity, especially through natural medicine.
Sadly, Ji Kang’s interest in longevity came to an abrupt end as a result of his apolitical stance. When power shifted in favor of the Sima clan, Sima Zhao courted the Sage for an official position. Ji Kang spurned his requests, which began a series of trials and intrigues that ended in Ji Kang’s execution.
Ji Kang, Ruan Ji, and the other Sages of the Bamboo Grove lived in a time period of great difficulty — especially for artists who appreciated the experience of nature and its teachings. One of the most compelling aspects of their story lies in what they had to do to live the way they wanted to, either by knocking down office walls, using poetry and music as an outlet, or meeting convivially in a place that allowed them access to only the most pertinent communication with the outside world.
I’ve been thinking about these circumstances in relation to my contemporary experience. As someone who doesn’t have to actually escape government oppression (yet), who can write and read and communicate, mostly freely, from my own home — often with the aid of a computer — what becomes of the world in which I would escape to?
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