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....
(The entire section is 936 words.)