In the tumultuous Three Kingdoms period, the dangerous world of politics led seven friends to meet together in a bamboo forest, writing poetry, discoursing on philosophy, and enjoying the natural world. Some of the seven retained official roles, while others turned their backs on politics entirely. The seven as a whole became important icons in a long tradition of abandoning the stifling world of hypocritical politics for a life of the mind.
(210-263) Born into privilege and position in the Wei court, Ruan Ji (阮籍) developed a reputation for eccentricity and drunkenness, allowing him to avoid many of the perils of political intrigue. He shocked the society of his time with his refusal to honour convention and eventually left court life completely. Ruan Ji was a man of singular character who, despite his carefully cultivated image of drunken iconoclast, wrote poems of profound melancholy and beauty.
Ji Kang (嵇康) or Xi Kang, owned the house near which the Seven Worthies met. Turning his back on high position at court, Ji Kang rejected worldly concerns in favour of pursuing immortality. Close to Ruan Ji, Ji Kang never quite pulled off his friend's trick of eccentric disengagement, and his iconoclasm took a more outspoken form. Eventually his counter-cultural lifestyle and personal grudges against him led to his execution by the state.
Xiang Xiu (向秀) was a philosopher who embraced the idea of relativism and wrote an extensive commentary on the seminal Daoist text known as the Zhuangzi. A good friend of Ruan Ji and Ji Kang, he was forced to take up a series of official posts after Ji Kang's execution. Xiang Xiu is also famous for his work of poetry Thoughts of the Past (思舊賦), lamenting the death of Ji Kang and Lü An.
Liu Ling (劉令) is known for the poem Ode to the Virtues of Wine (酒德頌) and his life was a living testimony to this. His legendary love of drinking - which he said facilitated his 'free and easy wandering' - gave rise to colourful anecdotes. In philosophy a thoroughgoing Daoist, Liu Ling espoused ruling through non-action and embraced Zhuangzi's concept of a total relativity which breaks down all distinctions.
Ruan Xian (阮咸) was the nephew of Ruan Ji and seems to have shared his uncle's taste for theatrical subversion of political norms. One example is artificially widening his trousers with bamboo sticks to mock the ostentation of court life. He played a form of lute (琵琶) with two round holes, later named ruan in his honour.
Wang Rong (王戎) is mainly remembered for being rich, owning large tracts of land, and maintaining a successful political career. He was also a connoisseur of poetry, literary works and 'pure conversation' (清談) - a form of philosophical discourse that was an ideal of the time. As little survives of Wang Rong's thought, he is a victim of history - his main claim to fame, possibly unfairly, being avarice.
Shan Tao (山濤) was related by marriage to the powerful regent Sima Yi, linking him to the newly ascendant regime. Shan Tao tried to recruit Ji Kang to a political post. This gave rise to one of Ji Kang's 'severing friendship' letters, in which he outlines the reasons he would make a terrible official. Despite this apparent rupture, when Ji Kang was facing execution it was Shan Tao whom he trusted to raise his child.