Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove


The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove were a group of Chinese learned men from the third century CE. During a time of political upheaval, the group distanced themselves from governmental service, choosing instead to spend time engaged in Daoist-inspired discussions, poetry, and music, sometimes while inebriated. At least one member of the group abandoned his government position after becoming disheartened by corruption, and the group as a whole became associated with retreat from public life.

References to the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove are abundant in Chinese and Japanese art and literature. The earliest extant visual representations of the group date to the fifth century CE. Over time the theme gained popularity in Chinese painting and decorative arts, particularly from the late Ming (1368–1644) through the Qing dynasty (1644–1911). In Japan, the motif of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove was known as early as the ninth century. It was widely represented in Japanese art from the sixteenth century to the Edo period (1615–1868).

Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove, featuring traditional works of art from China and Japan, has been organized to accompany and provide some cultural context for Asia Society’s exhibition of Seven Intellectuals in a Bamboo Forest, the contemporary video work by Chinese artist Yang Fudong.

Who Were the Seven Sages?

Xi Kang (Ji Kang; 223–262) is identified through historical references and tomb inscriptions as a poet and musician, author, and Daoist philosopher and alchemist. His oeuvre includes compositions for a stringed instrument called the qin and writings on music theory, politics, ethics, and longevity. A critic of Confucianism, he is recorded as having challenged many of the social conventions. At a young age he retired from official life and a desire for fame and success, removing himself from the political corruption that he felt he could not endure, and became a proponent of wuwei (inaction). We know he was executed by the military general Zhong Hui, although the circumstances leading to this action remain unclear.

Shan Tao (205–285) was a good friend of Xi Kang. Shan Tao was an official who ultimately reached the rank of Director of Instruction (situ), one of the three highest offices in China. At one point Shan Tao put Xi Kang’s name forward as his successor. This recommendation only alienated the latter and irrevocably damaged their friendship, because the act suggested that Shan Tao did not fully understand Xi Kang’s character and his rejection of governmental service.

Xiang Xiu (228–281) was also a good friend of Xi Kang. He wrote a memoir of Xi Kang, as well as a refutation of Xi Kang’s essay Yangsheng lun (Essay on Nourishing Life). He is also said to have written a commentary on the major third-century BCE Daoist philosophical text the Zhuangzi.

Ruan Ji (210–263), the son of an official, was a member of a famous literary group and a talented writer and poet himself. He held the official position of Infantry Colonel (bubing xiaowei), but has gone down in history as being unrestrained and reckless, perhaps because of his excessive drinking habit. Correspondence also relates that he was an acquaintance of Xi Kang.

Ruan Xian (230–281) held office as Junior Chamberlain (sanji shilang) and Grand Warden (taishou), and is said to have possessed musical skill.

Liu Ling (ca. 221–ca. 300) wrote the poem Ode to the Virtues of Wine. There are a few anecdotes about him published after the fifth century. One of these notes:

On many occasions Liu Ling, under the influence of wine, would be completely free and uninhibited, sometimes taking off his clothes and sitting naked in his room. Once when some persons saw him and chided him for it, Ling retorted, “I take heaven and earth for my pillars and roof, and the rooms of my house for my pants and coat. What are you gentlemen doing in my pants?”

Wang Rong (234–305) remains largely an enigma, though we know that like Shan Tao he held the high ranking post of Director of Instruction.

Works in the Exhibition

brush pot
Censer with decoration of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove
Ming (1368–1644) or Qing period (1633–1911), ca. 1640
Porcelain painted with underglaze cobalt blue
H. 5 3/4 in. (14.7 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Courtesy of Lender


In the imaginative scene on this censer, one of the sages, most likely Xi Kang, arrives at a bamboo grove on a chariot pulled by a deer. Three servants follow him, one holding a fan and one holding the musical instrument he was known to have played, the qin. A third carries a staff over his shoulder, which appears to be the type of staff held by intellectuals while they practiced qingtan (pure conversation). Two other sages play the board game called weiqi, and others listen to music, light incense, and drink.

During the late Ming and Qing dynasties in China, the Seven Sages of the Bamboo grove was a popular decorative motif for items made for everyday use, such as this incense burner. The transition from the Ming to the Qing period caused social and political upheavals. Many scholar-officials faced the difficult decision of whether or not to serve the new Qing dynasty. The Seven Sages motif would have appealed to these scholar-officials who struggled to remain faithful to their moral and political convictions in the midst of a change in regime.

brush pot
Brush pot with carved decoration of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove
Late Ming (1368–1644) to early Qing period (1644–1911)
H. 7 x W. 7 1/2 in. (17.8 x 19.1 cm)
Private collection
Photo: Sea Chang Chun


This Chinese brush pot combines playfulness and elegance. Its craftsmanship is evident in the intricate carving. To create the piece, the artist used a section of bamboo stalk and carved the scene of the Seven Sages based on its naturally concave form. Two gentlemen on the left are shown playing a Chinese board game called weiqi, and four other figures on the right view a hanging scroll. The artist arranged the bamboo stalks to create an illusion of spatial depth. The windblown bamboo leaves add a sense of liveliness to the scene.

hanging scroll
BSeikō (Rikō) (Japnese, fl. 2nd half of 16th century)
The Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove (detail)
Muromachi period (1392–1573)
Hanging scroll; ink on paper
12 1/4 x 21 1/8 in. (31.2 x 53.7 cm)
Property of Mary Griggs Burke
Photo: Bruce Schwarz, courtesy Mary Griggs Burke


In this painting, which has been attributed to the Japanese artist Seikō (Rikō), the Seven Sages stand among bamboo trees near a stream. The rocks are constructed with broad, textured brushstrokes, suggesting a strong stylistic influence of the Chinese Zhe school painters of the Ming period. The figures wear the loose robes, drooping caps, sparse hair, and beards of Chinese scholar-gentlemen. They are portrayed as a group of amiable and graceful scholar-gentlemen. Although the double gourd fastened to the belt of the central figure in the group on the right hints at the motif of drinking, the painting primarily depicts an elegant gathering of scholar-gentlemen in a delightful natural setting.

This painting illustrates the popularity of the motif of the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove in Japanese art from the sixteenth century onward. This motif appealed to a wide range of audiences, who may have felt trapped in a society where military prowess, wealth, and social rank determined status. During the tumultuous Muromachi period, images of the Chinese recluses also might have appealed to Zen Buddhist priests who wanted to retreat into nature to evade social upheaval. The Seven Sages in Japan took on connotations of superior learning and intellectual sophistication, making it an appealing theme for those wishing to raise their cultural profile, including aristocrats, priests, warriors, and merchants.

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