The works of Ruan Ji were mentioned in a sixth century imperial catalog that mentions Ruan Ji’s collected works in fourteen folios (including a table of contents in one folio). A century later, they are listed as ten folios, and by the eleventh century, they are reduced to five. In the fourteenth century, however, they appear again as ten folios. Extant editions of his works include considerably fewer: about twenty essays and fu rhyme-prose, official letters, and poetry.
Ruan Ji eschewed the traditional yuefu (music bureau songs—that is, new lyrics set to old tunes and titles) that were in great vogue before, during, and after his time, but he espoused the pentameter verse form established during the preceding Han era (207 b.c.e.-220 c.e.). Indeed, his eighty-two enigmatic verses under the general designation yonghuai shi (poems singing of my emotions) are among the most assiduously studied and imitated poems in this genre. They vary from eight to twenty lines, the majority being of ten or twelve lines, in the traditional abcbdb rhyme scheme.
In view of the dominating political influences upon Ruan Ji and the oblique style in which he expressed his moral conflicts, commentaries on his work have, reasonably, followed two interests: line-by-line interpretation, whereby political targets are identified and his satiric references and allusions are explicated, and appreciation of the genuine personal torment he expressed in attractive poetic form. Near-contemporaneous texts reflect these attitudes. For example, the fifth century court poet Yan Yazhi says: “During the administration of Sima Zhao, Ruan Ji was ever fearful of catastrophe, and thus composed his verses.” Yan Yazhi notes, again:Ruan Ji personally served in a chaotic regime and was ever fearful of being slandered and encountering disaster. Thus he composed his verses; and so, whenever he sighed, saddened for his life, although his situation lay in satire and ridicule, yet his writings contain enigma and obscurity. A hundred generations hence it will be difficult to fathom his sentiments. Thus I roughly clarify the overall meaning and outline the remote resonances.
During the sixth century, Zhong Hong completed one of the first and greatest canons of Chinese literary theory and criticism, the Shipin (classification of poets). Herein, Ruan Ji is included in the top rank of three classifications, Zhong Hong saying that his poetic heritage was the minor odes (a section of the Confucian Canon of Poetry, 1000-600 b.c.e., traditionally associated with political satire) and commenting:He made no effort at worm-whittling [that is, intricate, superfluous embellishment], yet his poems on expressing his emotions shape one’s spirit, and inspire one’s innermost thoughts. His words lie within ordinary sight and sound, but his sentiments lodge beyond universal bounds.
The necessity for obscure allegory and the obscurity itself are undisputed. In setting a scene, Ruan Ji typically makes reference, itself disguised, to a similar situation in ancient history, his allusions cleverly enhanced by synonymous location or other nomenclature. For example, he will “hitch up a carriage and go forth from the Wei capital.” Here he exploits the fortuitous existence of an ancient state of Wei during the Zhou Dynasty (1066-221 b.c.e.), synonymous with his own regime. The “Wei capital” may then refer either to the ancient Daliang or to the Caowei metropolis at Loyang. Elsewhere, he will say, “In the past I wandered in Ta-liang” and, again, “I gaze back toward Ta-liang” for the same effect. Other references, revealing Ruan Ji’s exceptional scholarship in a milieu in which vast erudition was a mere modus vivendi, recall in similarly recognizable and pertinent allegory scenes of splendor long since turned to dust, sounding the familiar theme of the transience of mortal glory and warning against the excesses of current rulers.
The decline of society and political morality also features prominently in Ruan Ji’s satire. Political aspirations, he suggests, were the cause of the pollution of original innocence. Ruan Ji’s principal villains are not identified directly, but commentators have been in...
(The entire section is 1806 words.)