SU SHI (SU DONGPO)—THE QUINTESSENTIAL SCHOLAR-OFFICIAL-POET

SU SHI


Su Shi

Perhaps the best example of a scholar-official with strong interests in the arts is Su Shi (Su Dongpo, 1036-1101). Su Shi had a long career as a government official in the Northern Song. After performing exceptionally well in the examinations, Su Shi became something of a celebrity. Throughout his life he was a superb and prolific writer of both prose and poetry. Because he took strong stands on many controversial political issues of his day, he got into political trouble several times and was repeatedly banished from the capital. Twice he was exiled for his sharp criticisms of imperial policy. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Consultants Patricia Ebrey and Conrad Schirokauer afe.easia.columbia.edu/song <|>]

Su was one of the most noted poets of the Northern Song period. According to Columbia University’s Asia for Educators: “Best known as a poet, Su was also an esteemed painter and calligrapher and theorist of the arts. He wrote glowingly of paintings done by scholars, who could imbue their paintings with ideas, making them much better than paintings that merely conveyed outward appearance, the sorts of paintings that professional painters made.” <|>

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shih is probably perhaps best known to Western audiences by his pen name, Su Tung-p'o. Born in 1036, five emperors came to the throne during his lifetime. Eleventh-century China, however, was a period of great political instability. The bitter rivalry between revisionist and conservative factions at court made a political career precarious. For Su Shih, known for his sharp wit and stubborn personality, it was even more difficult. However, the ups and downs of his life and career provided constant inspiration in his art and writing, for which he is so highly regarded by later generations.” It has now been almost 900 years since Su Shih passed away in 1101. Although his writings were once blacklisted, even destroyed, his genius could not be repressed. His poetry and writing have been reprinted, studied, and enjoyed by generations since. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/]

Good Websites and Sources on the Song Dynasty: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu ; Wikipedia Wikipedia ; San.beck.org san.beck.org ; BCPS bcps.org ; Good Websites and Sources on the Tang Dynasty: Wikipedia ; Google Book: China’s Golden Age: Everday Life in the Tang Dynasty by Charles Benn books.google.com/books; Empress Wu womeninworldhistory.com ; Good Websites and Sources on Tang Culture: Metropolitan Museum of Art metmuseum.org ; Tang Poems etext.lib.virginia.edu enter Tang Poems in the search; Tang Horses persiancarpetguide.com China Vista chinavista.com

Good Websites and Sources on Early Chinese History: 1) Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu; 2) Chinese Text Project ctext.org ; 3) Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization depts.washington.edu ; 4) Ancient China Life ancientchinalife.com ; 5) Ancient China for School Kids elibrary.sd71.bc.ca/subject_resources ; Good Chinese History Websites: 1) Chaos Group of University of Maryland chaos.umd.edu/history/toc ; 2) WWW VL: History China vlib.iue.it/history/asia ; 3) Wikipedia article on the History of China Wikipedia 4) China Knowledge; 5) Gutenberg.org e-book gutenberg.org/files ; Links in this Website: Main China Page factsanddetails.com/china (Click History)

Books: 1) Cambridge History of China Vol. 5 Part One and Part Two (Cambridge University Press); 2) Benn, Charles, “Daily Life in Traditional China: The Tang Dynasty,” Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002; 3) Schafer, Edward H. “The Golden Peaches of Samarkan,” Berkeley: University of California Press, 1963; 4) The Culture and Civilization of China, a massive, multi-volume series, (Yale University Press). You can help this site a little by ordering your Amazon books through this link: Amazon.com.

Life of Su Shi (Su Dongpo)


According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shi, “also known as Zhizhang and Resident of Tong Po, is native of Meishan of Shichuan, and was an imperial scholar in the 2nd Year of Chia You (1057). His life may well be categorized into several distinctive stages. The first stage began in 1057 when he composed during the civil examinations the essay Hsing-shang Chung-hou Chih-chih Lun, a treatise on loyalty and generosity in punishments and rewards, which earned the chief examiner Ou-yang Hsiu's admiration. Decorated a chin-shih, Su Shih became a public official, and remained on the path of ascendance in the bureaucracy until his father's death, after which he returned to his hometown in Sze-chuan to observe a period of mourning. This stage is distinguished by Su's ambitious work for the government and his vibrant artistry and prolific discourses. Notable works from this time include twenty-five chin-tse's (policy essays) and Ssu-chi Lun, a work on the administration of government, which were characterized by progressive and critical incisiveness. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/]

“The second stage spanned from 1069 to 1079. After returning to the capital following the mourning of his father's death, Su Shih was arrested and jailed for a total of eleven years for his satirical poems criticizing the government's radical reform measures. It was during this time that Wang An-shih's New Policies were gaining prominence. To Emperor Shen-tsung Su presented a ten-thousand-word report in which he openly expressed his opposition to the reforms, which resulted in repeated demotions to insignificant provincial posts and exile to such places as Hangchou, Michou, Huchou and Hsuchou. Eventually he was banished to Huangchou. \=/

“The third stage of Su Shi’s life “is noted by the three years (1080-1083) that Su Shih spent in Huangchou, which represented a pivotal point in his life. Not only did he begin in earnest to consider the meaning of human existence, but also came to enjoy the pleasures of life from farming and writing. During this stage in life he wrote several of his most admired pieces, including Ch'ih-pi Fu (Ode to the Red Cliff), Han-shi T?ie (The Cold Food Observance), Nien-nu-chiao (Recalling Her Charms), Ting-feng-p'o (Stilling Wind and Waves), and Lin-chiang-hsien (Immortal by the River), as well as a great number of poems. These works seem to have come from the comfortable apposition of elegant artistry with the very ordinary events as experienced by one who was very much at peace with himself. \=/

“The fourth stage in Su Shih's life began in the year of 1085, when he was summoned to return to the capital. For the eight years that followed he served in the imperial court, during which he gained the favor of the Empress Dowager Kao, who was in effect ruling the country, and was appointed to the Hanlin Imperial Academy as an attendant academician. While his political career flourished, Su came up with very few thought-provocative works; apart from poetic inscriptions on paintings, his works largely comprised poetic compositions in the socializing vein. It appears that in the case of Su Shih the advancement in career had not been accompanied by comparable progress in artistry. \=/


“With the passing of Empress Dowager Kao and Emperor Che-tsung's assuming real power, Su Shih was obliged to go once more into the provinces. Accused of having spoken disrespectfully of the emperors, Su was banished to the island of Hainan, a region which was utterly barbarious and unknown. Rather than lamenting his diminishing fortunes, Su Shih derived greater strength and acquired broader perspectives from adversity. In fact, Su was able to articulate in his compositions complex and deep emotions, and to arrive at a new realm of creativity through his observation of common souls and ordinary things.” \=/

Political Career of Su Shi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “Su Shih (sobriquet Tzu-han, also known by the pen name of Tung-p'o chu-shih), by virtue of his prominence, was drawn into the power struggle between reformers led by Wang An-shih and conservative forces. On the one hand, his very nature had made it impossible for him to fall tamely in step with the reforms espoused by Wang; on the other, Su found it difficult to abide uncritically with the inclinations of the old guard. He was thus compelled to tread a circuitous path through the political intrigue of his time. Such experiences also elicited the complexity and diversity so characteristic of his philosophy and artistry. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/]

“Su's tumultuous career began around 1079, when he wrote a satirical poem on the New Policies promoted by Prime Minister Wang An-shih, who was infuriated and had Su arrested. Su served time in jail and was later released, but the following year he was banished to Huang-chou in the southern hinterlands. This proved to be a major turning point in his life. Beforehand, Su was a free and spirited personality, and his poetry was full of insight and energy. However, having barely escaped with his life and being banished to the harsh region of the south, he began to reflect on the beauty of nature and the meaning of life. In exile, he enjoyed the simple pleasures of farming and writing, taking joy in what life had to offer. In fact, many of his most popular works were done at the time. Though Su was later pardoned, he was never far from controversy. Even as an old man, he was banished to the furthest reaches of the land--Hainan Island in the South China Sea. The experience, however, only further enlightened him. Though pardoned once again, this time he did not make it back to court and died on the trip north. \=/

“In the factional struggles of the Northern Sung, Wang An-shih and Su Shih were in two opposing camps. Of differing personalities and political opinions, Wang was determined and intolerant while Su was straightforward and open-minded. With both serving at court, confrontation was inevitable. However, when Wang An-shih retired as prime minister and moved to Chin-ling, Su Shih had an opportunity to travel with him. Despite their differences, they looked back on old times and had a true meeting of the minds.” \=/

Su Shi, the Poet-Artist


Art by Su Shi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: Su Shi “holds a particularly revered position in Chinese literary history, and ranks as one of the Four Song Masters in calligraphy, while being the first scholar to create the scholar painting in Chinese painting history. He is one of the most important literary masters in the Northern Song period. Su had a very unstable career as a government official, and was exiled from court that resulted from the Wutai Poem Incident to Huangzhow in the 2nd Year of Yuan Feng (1079). This marked a turning point in his life and work, and the Former and Latter Odes to the Red Cliff were representative works from this period.” [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Traditional critiques of Su Shih's calligraphy indicate that he often held the brush at an angle, producing characters that appeared somewhat abbreviated and thin. However, Su himself once wrote that "Plump and elegant as well as thin and tough (characters) both have their advantages." The characters here appear even and introverted, not abbreviated or unharmonious, making this a masterpiece of Su Shih's calligraphy. \=/

“Su Shih derived considerable joy throughout his life from the literary arts. However, the views that he expressed in his prose and poetry often got him into trouble. Even as an old man, it is said that he was exiled to the most remote southern locale of Hainan simply because of a line of his poetry was construed as mocking an enemy of his. Even in exile, however, Su Shih wrote to keep himself busy. \=/

Poetry of by Su Shi


Su Shi calligraphy

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “After Su Shih was exiled to Huang-chou, he came to be enlightened on the brevity and simple things of life. He also began to revere the figure of T'ao Yuan-ming, China's famous recluse-poet from 500 years earlier. Su felt that Tao's poetry possessed a sense of directness and beauty that was both natural and unadorned. Su therefore began composing poetry to the tune of Tao's verse. In 1092, while serving as magistrate of Yangchow, he composed "20 Poems on Drinking with T'ao." Later, after Su was banished to the far south, he further appreciated the poetry of T'ao Yuan-ming and was determined to collect all of the poems along with those by T'ao for a total of more than a hundred. The poetry of these two artists is not just a matter of similarity in form, but it represents the harmonious combination of two kindred spirits in one compilation. This Southern Sung imprint in four volumes, although it includes some later additions and repairs, is still an extremely precious early example. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ ]

“Su Shih passed away on the 28th of July in 1101. While a good many of his works were either destroyed or banned by imperial edict, the fact remains that numerous editions and annotations of his complete works have been issued from the Sung Dynasty down to the present day. That his stirring poetic compositions and essays still touch the human heart nine hundred years after the words were written is testimony of the timelessness of his art. His outstanding calligraphy, too, is so very much admired today. \=/

“Of the early surviving annotated editions of Su Shih's poetry, one is by Shih Yuan-chih and the other by Wang Shih-p'eng. Shih's annotated edition is arranged chronologically, and Wang's by category. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. Shih's edition, however, enjoyed only limited circulation and became very rare. This text was not printed for wider audiences until the early Ch'ing dynasty (1644-1911), when Sung Lo-ts'ung bought a fragmentary Sung dynasty edition from a southern collector. He then asked Shao Ch'ang-heng and Li Pi-heng to edit and fill in the missing parts and had it published.

"Former Ode to the Red Cliff" by Su Shi

The "Former Ode to the Red Cliff" in the collection at the the National Palace Museum, Taipei was personally written by Su Shi” and is a “particularly rare masterpiece in literary and art. The Ode depicted Su and his friends travelling on a small boat to visit the Red Nose Cliff just outside Huangzhow city on July 16 in the 5th Year of Yuan Feng (1082), and recalled the Battle of Red Cliff when Sun Quan won victory over the Cao army during the times of the Three Kingdoms; through this Ode, Su expressed his views about the universe and life in general. \=/

“This Ode was written upon the invitation of his friend Fu Yao-yu (1024- 1091), and from the phrase "Shi composed this Ode last year" at the end of the scroll, one deduces that it was probably written during the 6th Year of Yuan Feng, when Su was 48 years of age. From Su's particular reminders of "living in fear of more troubles", and "by your love for me, you will hold this Ode in secrecy", one has a sense of Su's fear as a result of being implicated in the emperor's displeasure over writings. \=/

“The start of the scroll is damaged and is missing 36 characters, which were supplemented by Wen Zhengming (1470 ~ 1559) with annotations in small characters, although some scholars believe that the supplementations were actually written by Wen Peng. The entire scroll is composed in regular script, the characters broad and tightly written, the brushstrokes full and smooth, showing that Su had achieved perfect harmony between the elegant flow in the style of the Two Wang Masters that he learned from in his early years, and the more heavy simplicity in the style of Yen Zhenqing that he learned in his middle ages.” \=/


Ode on the Red Cliff


Red Cliff, Part I by Su Shi

The following short essay describes a small boat party on the Yangzi River. The boat-trip took place at Red Cliff, traditionally thought to be the place where Cao Cao a disastrous defeat at the hands of his enemies, Liu Bei and Sun Chuan, in 208. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]>

In “Red Cliff, Part,” Su Shi wrote: In the autumn of the year jen-hsu (1082), on the sixteenth day of the seventh month, I took some guests on an excursion by boat under the Red Cliff. A cool wind blew gently, without starting a ripple. I raised my cup to pledge the guests; and we chanted the Full Moon ode, and sang out the verse about the modest lady. After a while the moon came up above the hills to the east, and wandered between the Dipper and the Herdboy Star; a dewy whiteness spanned the river, merging the light on the water into the sky. We let the tiny reed drift on its course, over ten thousand acres of dissolving surface which streamed to the horizon, as though we were leaning on the void with the winds for chariot, on a journey none knew where, hovering above as though we had left the world of men behind us and risen as immortals on newly sprouted wings. [Source: “Red Cliff, Part I” by Su Shi (1036-1101), also known as Su Dongpo, “Anthology of Chinese Literature, Volume I: From Early Times to the Fourteenth Century,” edited by Cyril Birch (New York: Grove Press, 1965), 381-382 <|>]

“Soon when the wines we drank had made us merry, we sang this verse tapping the gunwales:
Cinnamon oars in front, magnolia oars behind
Beat the transparent brightness, thrust upstream against flooding light. <|>
So far, the one I yearn for,
The girl up there at the other end of the sky! <|>

“One of the guests accompanied the song on a flute. The notes were like sobs, as though he were complaining, longing, weeping, accusing; the wavering resonance lingered, a thread of sound which did not snap off, till the dragons underwater danced in the black depths, and a widow wept in our lonely boat. <|>


Japanese Red Cliff painting

“I solemnly straightened my lapels, sat up stiffly, and asked the guest: “Why do you play like this?” The guest answered: ‘Full moon, stars few Rooks and magpies fly south. …’ “Was it not Ts’ao Ts’ao who wrote this verse? Gazing toward Hsiak’ou in the west, Wu.ch’ang in the east, mountains and river winding around him, stifling in the close green … was it not here that Ts’ao Ts’ao was hemmed in by young Chou? At the time when he smote Ching.chou and came eastwards with the current down from Chiang.ling, his vessels were prow by stern for a thousand miles, his banners hid the sky; looking down on the river winecup in hand, composing his poem with lance slung crossways, truly he was the hero of his age, but where is he now? And what are you and I compared with him? Fishermen and woodcutters on the river’s isles, with fish and shrimp and deer for mates, riding a boat as shallow as a leaf, pouring each other drinks from bottlegourds; mayflies visiting between heaven and earth, infinitesimal grains in the vast sea, mourning the passing of our instant of life, envying the long river which never ends! Let me cling to a flying immortal and roam far off, and live forever with the full moon in my arms! But knowing that this art is not easily learned, I commit the fading echoes to the sad wind.” <|>

“Have you really understood the water and the moon?” I said. “The one streams past so swiftly yet is never gone; the other for ever waxes and wanes yet finally has never grown nor diminished. For if you look at the aspect which changes, heaven and earth cannot last for one blink; but if you look at the aspect which is changeless, the worlds within and outside you are both inexhaustible, and what reasons have you to envy anything? <|>

“Moreover, each thing between heaven and earth has its owner, and even one hair which is not mine I can never make part of me. Only the cool wind on the river, or the full moon in the mountains, caught by the ear becomes a sound, or met by the eye changes to colour; no one forbids me to make it mine, no limit is set to the use of it; this is the inexhaustible treasury of the creator of things, and you and I can share in the joy of it.” The guest smiled, consoled. We washed the cups and poured more wine. After the nuts and savouries were finished, and the wine.cups and dishes lay scattered around, we leaned pillowed back to back in the middle of the boat, and did not notice when the sky turned white in the east.” <|>

Different Translation Red Cliff, Part I by Su Shi


Su Shi's Red Cliff poem illustrated on a vase

The following is a translation by Pauline Chen of the Former Ode, also known as the “First Prose Poem of the Red Cliffs”: “ In the autumn of 1082, on the 16th of the seventh month, Master Su and his guests sailed in a boat below the Red Cliffs. Clear wind blew gently, the water was calm. The boaters raised their wine and poured for each other, reciting “The Bright Moon” and singing “The Lovely One.” After a while, the moon rose above the eastern mountain, and hovered between the Dipper and the Cowherd star. White mist lay across the water; the light from the water reached the sky. They went where their tiny boat took them, floating on a thousand leagues of haze, in the vastness as if resting on emptiness and riding the wind, not knowing where they would stop, floating as if they had left the earth and stood alone, having turned into birds and become immortal. And so they drank and their joy reached its height, and they sang beating on the side of the boat. [Source: Asia for Educators, Columbia University, Primary Sources with DBQs, afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>]

“The song went:
Cassia oars and orchid paddles
Beat the illusory moon,
Rowing against the flow of streaming light.
From a great distance my heart
Yearns for my beloved at one end of the sky. <|>

“Among the guests there was one who played the flute, and he played along with their song. The sound of his flute mourned, as if grieving as if loving, as if weeping as if reproaching. Its sound echoed and lingered, not breaking as if a silken thread. It set to dancing the dragon submerged in a deep crevice, and brought to tears the widow in the lonely boat.” <|>

Rhyming with Tzu-yu's "Treading the Green" by Su Shi

According to the National Palace Museum, Taipei: “ Previous writers felt that Su Shih used the techniques for poetry when composing lyrics, but they failed to realize the genius in doing so. Sung dynasty lyrics after Su Shih were no longer the tunes that filled taverns and song houses. Instead, they could express melancholy and longing, becoming a medium for personal reflections and inner thoughts. This milestone in Sung poetry is the result of Su Shih's creative talent and virtue. [Source: National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/]


Dancing and Singing Peasants by Ma Yuan

“Rhyming with Tzu-yu's "Treading the Green"” by Su Shi goes:
East wind stirs fine dust on the roads,
fine chance for strollers to enjoy the new spring.
Slack season—just right for roadside drinking,
grain still too short to be crushed by carriage wheels.
City people sick of walls around them,
clatter out at dawn and leave the whole town empty.
Songs and drums jar the hills, grass and trees shake;
picnic baskets strew the fields where crows pick them over.
Who draws a crowd there? A priest, he says,
blocking the way, selling charms and scowling:
“Good for silkworms—give you cocoons like water jugs!
Good for livestock—make your sheep big as deer!”
Passers.by aren’t sure they believe his words—
buy charms anyway to consecrate the spring.
The priest grabs their money, heads for a wine shop.
Dead drunk, he mutters, “My charms really work!”

“Treading the Green” refers to a day of picnics held in early spring. Su’s younger brother Tzu.Yu had written a poem describing the festival, and Su here adopts the same theme and rhymes for his own poem. The “priest” in line 9 may be either a Buddhist or Taoist priest. <|> [Source: The Columbia Book of Chinese Poetry,” edited and translated by Burton Watson (New York: Columbia University Press, 1984), 297]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

Text Sources: Robert Eno, Indiana University indiana.edu /+/ ; Asia for Educators, Columbia University afe.easia.columbia.edu <|>; University of Washington’s Visual Sourcebook of Chinese Civilization, depts.washington.edu/chinaciv /=\; National Palace Museum, Taipei npm.gov.tw \=/ Library of Congress; New York Times; Washington Post; Los Angeles Times; China National Tourist Office (CNTO); Xinhua; China.org; China Daily; Japan News; Times of London; National Geographic; The New Yorker; Time; Newsweek; Reuters; Associated Press; Lonely Planet Guides; Compton’s Encyclopedia; Smithsonian magazine; The Guardian; Yomiuri Shimbun; AFP; Wikipedia; BBC. Many sources are cited at the end of the facts for which they are used.

Last updated November 2016

This site contains copyrighted material the use of which has not always been authorized by the copyright owner. Such material is made available in an effort to advance understanding of country or topic discussed in the article. This constitutes 'fair use' of any such copyrighted material as provided for in section 107 of the US Copyright Law. In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, the material on this site is distributed without profit. If you wish to use copyrighted material from this site for purposes of your own that go beyond 'fair use', you must obtain permission from the copyright owner. If you are the copyright owner and would like this content removed from factsanddetails.com, please contact me.