Saturday, September 20, 2008

Kong Rong

Kong Rong was a bureaucrat, poet, and minor warlord during the late Eastern Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era of China. He was also the 20th generation descendant of Confucius. As he was once the governor of Beihai Commandery , he was also known as Kong Beihai. He was defeated by Yuan Tan in 196 and escaped to the capital Xuchang, where he served effectively under Cao Cao, who held under his control. For being a political opponent of Cao Cao and humiliating him on multiple occasions, Kong Rong was eventually executed.

Famed for his quick wits and elaborate literary style, Kong Rong was ranked among the Seven Scholars of Jian'an , a group of representative literature of his time. However, most of his works had been lost. Those that survived can be found in compilations from the Ming Dynasty and Qing Dynasty.

A well-known story commonly used to educate children even nowadays on the values of courtesy and fraternal love involves the four-year-old Kong Rong giving up the larger pears to his elder and younger brothers. This story is also mentioned in the ''Three Character Classic'', a text used for elementary education since the Song Dynasty.


Early life and career

Born in the former , Kong Rong showed his quick wits since a young age. According to the ''Epilogue of Han'' by Sima Biao , when he was a teenager, Kong Rong paid a visit to a renowned official named , who received no one but the very eminent and his own relatives. Claiming to be a relative, Kong Rong was brought to Li Ying, who asked how they were related. Kong Rong answered that his ancestor Confucius was a student and friend of Lao Tzu . Another guest present was not impressed, however, and commented that a person who showed great ability at a young age might not grow up to be especially capable. Kong Rong immediately retorted, saying, "I suppose you were really smart when you were young." Li Ying laughed at this and predicted the child would grow up to be a great man.

When he grew older, Kong Rong entered the bureaucratic system of the Eastern Han Dynasty. He was successively promoted and in 190 was appointed as the governor of , which situated in , the region most heavily infested by the Yellow Turban Rebellion of the 180s. Upon taking up office, Kong Rong concentrated on reconstruction of the city and establishment of schools. He promoted Confucian studies and provided proper burial for deceased refugees without family members to look after their funeral affairs. During this time, however, he was besieged by an army consisting of the remnant of Yellow Turban rebels led by Guan Hai . Kong Rong sent Taishi Ci to seek help from Liu Bei, who was the governor of at that time. Taishi Ci came back with 3,000 elite troops, whereupon the rebels dispersed. In 195, Kong Rong was further elevated to governor of the entire Qingzhou under a recommendation by Liu Bei.

Stay in Xuchang

In the next year, however, the powerful warlord Yuan Shao sent his eldest son Yuan Tan to take over Qingzhou. Kong Rong was defeated and his family was captured. He escaped to the capital Xuchang, where he was subsequently appointed as the Privy Treasurer . During his stay in Xuchang, Kong Rong often stood against policies of the chancellor Cao Cao, the de facto ruler who held Emperor Xian under his control. When Cao Cao imposed a ban on alcohol due to crop shortage, Kong Rong wrote to him retorting, "Since the kings and were overthrown due to their desire for women, why don't you ban marriage as well?" Kong Rong was then stripped of his official post but soon reinstated, albeit to a titular position. However, because of his hospitality, his house was always filled with guests.

During this time Kong Rong befriended Mi Heng, a talented man from . Despite being very learned, Mi Heng was unconventional and unconstrained. Upon reaching Xuchang, he wrote a prose putting down every eminent person there. When asked whom he would then consider talented, Mi Heng replied, "First there is Kong Rong, second there is ." Kong Rong tried to recommend him to Cao Cao, but Mi Heng first played a drum naked at a feast hosted by Cao Cao before many guests and then criticized Cao Cao loudly outside the latter's doors. Unwilling to kill Mi Heng himself, Cao Cao then sent the presumptuous man away to Liu Biao, governor of Jingzhou.

In 198, Cao Cao was gearing up for an encounter with Yuan Shao along the shores of the Yellow River. Kong Rong held a pessimistic stand, telling Cao Cao's advisor Xun Yu that Yuan Shao would be extremely difficult to defeat as he had ample food supplies, far superior troop strength and many capable and loyal subjects. However, Cao Cao took advantages of Yuan Shao's weaknesses and eventually defeated the latter at the decisive Battle of Guandu in 200. Yuan Shao died two years later, leaving his legacy to contest between his eldest and youngest sons Yuan Tan and Yuan Shang.

In 204, Cao Cao defeated the latter and conquered the city of , whereupon he married Lady Zhen to his own son, Cao Pi. When Kong Rong heard of this, he wrote Cao Cao a letter, saying, "When King Wu of Zhou defeated , he married Daji to the Duke of Zhou." Thinking that Kong Rong cited a classic text to praise him, Cao Cao asked about the source when he returned, but Kong Rong said, "Seeing what happened in our day, I thought it must be so then."


In 208, Kong Rong spoke ill of Cao Cao before an emissary from Sun Quan, a powerful warlord occupying southeast China. Cao Cao then sentenced him to death. According to the ''Spring and Autumn Annals of Wei'' by Sun Sheng , Kong Rong's two eight-year-old sons were playing a game of when their father was arrested. When others urged them to escape, they answered:

How could there be unbroken eggs under a toppled nest?

This later became a Chinese idiom , used to describe that when a group suffers, all individuals belonging to it will be affected. An alternate but similar story could also be found in ''A New Account of the Tales of the World'' by Liu Yiqing , which is written in a more elaborate style.

After Kong Rong was executed along with his entire family, his body was left in the streets. Not a single court official who used to be close to him dared to collect the corpses for burial except Zhi Xi , who fell over Kong Rong's body and wept, crying, "Now you have left me for death, who could I talk to that would understand me?"

Literary achievement

Although he did not meet with much success in politics, Kong Rong was undeniably a leading literary figure of his time, famed for his proses as well as poems. Along with six other poets of his time, their poems formed the backbone of what was to be known as the Jian'an style . Collectively they were known as the Seven Scholars of Jian'an . The civil strife towards the end of the Eastern Han Dynasty gave the ''Jian'an'' poems their characteristic solemn yet heart-stirring tone, while lament over the ephemerality of life was also a central theme of works from this period. In terms of the history of Chinese literature, the ''Jian'an'' poems were a transition from the early folksongs into scholarly poetry.

Kong Rong's outstanding literary skills, however, were often thought to be an elaborate but empty fa?ade not supported by sound reasons. Cao Pi commented in his ''A Discourse on Literature'' that Kong Rong's words cannot hold discourses and surpassed their reasoning, so much so that they almost seem like mere sarcasm or mockery.

After Kong Rong's death, Cao Pi collected twenty-five of his poems and included them in ''A Discourse on Literature''. However, most of these had been lost and only five survive till this day, out of which the authenticity of two has not been verified. Nine volumes containing Kong Rong's proses under the ''Book of Sui'' had also been lost. Those that survived could be found in compilations from the Ming and Qing Dynasty. These include several letters Kong Rong wrote to Cao Cao in criticism of the latter's policies.

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