An Encyclopaedia on Chinese History and Literature

Ruan Ji 阮籍

Feb 20, 2013 © Ulrich Theobald

Ruan Ji 阮籍 (210-263), courtesy name Sizong 嗣宗, was a thinker and writer of the Three Empires period 三國 (220-280). He was one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove (zhulin qixian 竹林七賢). His father Ruan Yu 阮瑀 was one of the Seven Masters of the Jian'an Reign (Jian'an qizi 建安七子).

Ruan Ji hailed from Chenliu 陳留 (modern Weishi 尉氏, Henan), was a student of Cai Yong 蔡邕, and served in the Wei empire as a palace gentleman for service (congshi zhonglang 從事中郎), cavalier attendant-in-ordinary (sanji changshi 散騎常侍), and counsellor (xiang 相) of the Prince of Dongping 東平. Later on he asked to be appointed to the post of commander of the infantry (bubing xiaowei 步兵校尉), for which reason he is also known under the name of Ruan Bubing 阮步兵 "Ruan of the Infantry".

In the later decades of the Wei dynasty 曹魏 (220-265) Ruan Ji was at odds with the family Sima 司馬 whose influence grew more and more. He withdrew from all offices and became a private person, heavily criticizing the "masters of the rituals and the law" (lifa zhi shi 禮法之士), as the Simas were called. Concering the style of government Ruan Ji represented a Confucian tradition in which the personal conduct of the ruler and his ministers was more important than the policy of law and order that prevailed in his times.

His inclination to Confucianism can also be seen in his writings, where he often mentions Confucius, for instance, in his dirge Kongzi lei 孔子誄, that is unfortunately only partially preserved. From this poem it can be seen that Ruan Ji had a worldview that combined the Confucian vision of society and rulership with the Daoist conception of the world. He explains that the the universal order (li 理) of the "Changes" 易 (see Yijing 易經) can be discovered in Heaven as well as in society. Those who have illuminated the Heavenly way can live without ambitions, and those who have perceived it in human virtue can get rid of all anxieties. If the upper class makes use of this Way, they will not insult the common people, and the common people will, if adhering to the Dao 道 (the Way), not rebell against the ruling class. In Ruan Ji's eyes, punishment by law and instruction by models were in fact two expression of the same spirit. Propriety is, he said, in inner expression of the Heavenly order, while music is an outward expression of it. These pairs have to be used in unison with each other. A slackening penal law cannot be replaced by instructions of personal virtue, and missing propriety cannot be compensated with ritual music. This opinion exactly reflects what Confucius 孔子 had said about the use of music.

Under the influence of the books Laozi 老子 (Daodejing 道德經) and Zhuangzi 莊子 Ruan Ji argued that an emperor had to rule by non-activity (wuwei 無為). His "way" of ruling to nature as a standard, creates laws and statutes, which then can be adhered to, so that all administrative matters naturally develop from them. This kind of government is in the Yijing called "highest extreme" (taiji 太極), meaning an all-embracing dimension, in the Chunqiu 春秋 "Spring and Autumn Annals" it is called "originary (politics)" (yuan 元), and Laozi called it simply "the Way" (dao 道). Inspite of his high regard for Confucianism, Ruan Ji was very disappointed about the missing usefulness of the rules of propriety (li 禮) in practice, and often met with his friend Ji Kang 嵇康 to drink wine and to engage in "pure discussions" (qingtan 清談).

Ruan Ji has written a lot of excellent five-syllable poems (wuyan shi 五言詩). The most important collection Yonghuai 咏懷 includes 82 different poems. Most of these are very critical towards his contemporaries in the field of politics, and laments the bad times in which Ruan Ji lived. His collected writings are called Ruan Bubing ji 阮步兵集. The most important philosophical writings are Yuelun 樂論, Tong Yi lun 通易論, Tong Lao lun 通老論, Da Zhuang lun 達莊論 and Daren xiansheng zhuan 大人先生傳.

Li Zhonghua 李中華 (1992). "Zhulin xiqian 竹林七賢", in Zhongguo da baike quanshu 中國大百科全書, part Zhongguo lishi 中國歷史 (Beijing/Shanghai: Zhongguo da baike quanshu chuabanshe), Vol. 3, 1613.
Pang Pu 龐樸, ed. (1997). Zhongguo ruxue 中國儒學 (Shanghai: Dongfang chuban zhongxin), Vol. 2, 81.