Ruan Ji, a member of the Daoist-inspired Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, was the son of Ruan Yu, himself a member of the celebrated coterie of poets known as the Seven Masters of the Jienan Era (the terminal period of the Han Dynasty, 196-220). Ruan Ji was ten years old at the time of the Caowei usurpation of the Han throne, and the latter half of his life was dominated by the decline of the Cao monarchs and the eventual usurpation of their power by the Sima clan.
Cao Cao overthrew the Han, and in 220, his son Cao Pei acceded to the throne as the emperor of the Caowei regime. He was succeeded at his death in 226 by Cao Rui, who squandered his patronage and oppressed the people. No direct offspring survived his death in 239, and a child successor was enthroned under the regency of Cao Shuang and an elderly general, Sima Yi. At first outmaneuvered by Cao Shuang, Sima Yi engineered a coup in 249 during which Cao Shuang, his relatives, and his supporters were massacred, so that the “number of famous men in the empire was reduced by half.” Sima Yi himself died in 251 and was succeeded by his son Sima Shi, who executed still more of the Cao and their clique and in 254 deposed the twenty-year-old Cao Fang in favor of Cao Mao, seven years Fang’s junior. Cao Mao was assassinated by the Sima in 260; Ruan Ji died in 263; and in 265 the Sima extinguished the Caowei and established the Jin Dynasty.
Ruan Ji’s personal and political dilemma lay in his sense of obligation to serve in public office, his distaste for the degeneracy of his liege lords, the Cao rulers, to whom he was bound in loyalty, and his antipathy toward the cruel ambition of the Sima usurpers, into whose service he had become trapped. Actually a devout Confucianist, he turned to Daoist mysticism—the quasi religion available to third century Chinese—and the unconventional ziran (unrestrained spontaneity in behavior) and qingtan (pure discussion—that is, metaphysical speculation, rather than practical, political affairs) much in vogue among the politically disappointed and disillusioned intellectuals of his time. Such pursuits were typified by the activities of his coterie, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, among whom Ruan Ji gained a reputation for his skill as a cittern player.
Ruan Ji seems from his youth to have tried to avoid involvement in public affairs, however much this may have tormented his conscience. An anecdote relates how, at an interview with a provincial governor, the young Ruan Ji remained silent throughout—to the admiration of the officer, who deemed him extraordinary and “unfathomable.” He must have resisted other summons, because it was not until 239, after the death of Cao Rui, that he was finally drafted, and he joined the entourage of regent Sima Yi. Ruan Ji was never thereafter able to retire from Sima employ and could only watch with dismay and passive resistance while the Sima furthered their own fortunes against the legitimate Cao, whom they ostensibly served.
In 242, Ruan Ji reluctantly accepted another post in the central government, but only after the composition of a now-celebrated letter to his patron, begging to be relieved. In any case, he later pleaded illness and returned home. In the late 240’s, Cao Shuang’s faction enlisted him, but again he soon resigned on the pretext of illness. He refused yet another post with Cao Shuang on the same pretense and retired to the countryside. When Cao Shuang was killed by Sima Yi in 249, Ruan Ji’s reputation for political foresight was much enhanced.
With Sima Yi’s death in 251, Ruan Ji was retained by Sima Shi, while all those who had been associated with Cao Shuang were executed. Three years later, upon the accession of Cao Mao, Ruan Ji was awarded an honorary knighthood, an official sinecure, and a substantive administrative position in the imperial secretariat—by then dominated by the Sima. Sima Shi died soon after Cao Mao’s installation, and his son and successor, Sima Zhao, drafted Ruan Ji into his military headquarters.
The following year, in 256, Ruan Ji was promoted to the office from which he derived his sobriquet, bubingxiaowei (colonel of infantry, hence “Infantry Ruan”). The reason traditionally given for his acceptance of the post may be apocryphal: He is supposed to have been attracted by the skillful brewing and the quantity of fine wine boasted by the official kitchens. Tradition further relates that he became deeply intoxicated while on the job and abandoned his official duties. Greatly favoring him, nevertheless, Sima Zhao attempted to wed his own daughter to him, but Ruan Ji again remained drunk (for two months) so that no arrangements could be made. Stories are also told of how, in a grotesque sign of his displeasure, he would roll his eyes so that only the whites showed. He was finally granted a post in the countryside, away from the intrigues and perils of the capital; his descriptions of his new environment indicate his disgust with the general poverty of body and spirit among the population there.
The assassination of the puppet emperor Cao Mao in 260 brought Ruan Ji back into the center of politics, writing apparently in support of the Sima. Confucianist commentators, however, have taken pains to explain away his change of heart: It was his official responsibility to write such commendations, he was deliberately drunk at the time of writing, and other, satirical compositions from his pen at the time represent his true desire for noninvolvement. He died in office at the age of fifty-three.