The more I learn about Ji Kang (one of the Seven Worthies of the Bamboo Grove), the more intriguing he becomes. His father died in his youth, but he rose to prominent posts in government and married into the ruling family. He shared his friend Ruan Ji’s distaste for the court and it seems that he really took to heart Zhuangzi’s rejection of division within society. Ji Kang disengaged from the court and joined his friends in the bamboo grove near his home.
But where Ruan Ji managed to escape political danger through cultivating a drunken iconoclastic persona, Ji Kang seems to have struggled to pull off the same trick and eventually met his end through the machinations of a man whom he had offended by brusquely refusing overtures of a political position. Ruan Ji mastered the role of the wise fool, but Ji Kang – it seems to me – was never fully at peace with this approach.
One thing you can say is that Ji Kang had the courage of his convictions. Zhuangzi may have extolled the virtues of the wheelwright or the potter as those in tune with the Way, but Ji Kang was prepared to retrain as a metalworker, shocking the society of his day. He pursued alchemy, too, searching for immortality in spiritual and chemical approaches.
And yet Ji Kang could not remain aloof from the political world he came from. At one point he toyed with the idea of raising an army against the powers that usurped the ruling Wei family, before being dissuaded. His eventual execution followed his intervention in a political dispute involving his friend. Ji Kang was a doer – socially engaged. He might have loved the idea of escaping the dust of the political world to pursue pure conversation and repose with the immortals, but was fundamentally conflicted about how to spend his mortal days. I like him. There’s a humanity to Ji Kang that seems to echo through the ages and cuts through the later legends that sprung up about him. Perhaps this is how – in some way – he achieved his immortality.