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Curator's Choice: The Eternal ‘Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove’

Wei Jin fengdu (‘Wei Jin demeanour’), a phrase describing the spirit of China’s Wei (220–65) and Jin (317–420) dynasties of the Six Dynasties period (220 or 222–589), was a concept that first captivated me long ago. When the Cultural Revolution began in 1966, my father’s bookshelves were cleared by the Red Guards. The only volumes left were a few Russian revolutionary novels and a set of works by the noted writer Lu Xun (1881–1936). Lu Xun’s Wei Jin fengdu yu yao yu jiu (Wei Jin Demeanour, Medicine and Liquor) moved me and implanted the words Wei Jin fengdu in my head. My childhood education had instilled in me the notion that an ideal human being should have dignity, versatility and fengdu pianpian, orgraceful demeanour’. Thus, the words Wei Jin fengdu resonated as soon I read them, though only as an abstract concept capturing the imagination of a little girl. In 1977, after passing the ‘imperial test’—as the national examination, restored after a ten-year hiatus, was ironically called—I became a student at Nanjing University, majoring in archaeology and absorbing the allure of the Six Dynasties period from a thousand years ago. On a visit to Nanjing Museum, I encountered for the first time the Seven Sages of the Bamboo Grove and Rong Qiqi, mounted rubbings taken from moulded brick reliefs found in a nearby imperial Southern Dynasties (420–589) tomb (Fig. 1). They astounded me, and Wei Jin fengdu was immediately transformed in my mind from a concept into a vivid, concrete image.

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September/October 2020
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