Su Shi continued the efforts of his patron, Ouyang Xiu, in advocating guwen (ancient prose) in the Song era (960–1279). His own practice of guwen essay writing made him the leading stylist of his time. He was thus perceived by later generations as one of the eight guwen masters of the Tang and Song periods, along with Han Yu, Liu Zongyuan, Ouyang Xiu, his father Su Xun, brother Su Zhe, and two other Song essayists Wang Anshi and Zeng Gong.
Like Han Yu and Ouyang Xiu, Su Shi emphasized the connection between literature and the Tao. Unlike them, however, Su Shi’s understanding of the Tao turned away from his predecessors’ focus on the Confucian Tao and more or less followed the tradition that Tao is what things rely upon to be themselves, and myriad patterns are attested to (Guo Shaoyu, 1957). As Peter Bol (1992.) points out, “The first line of the Tao te ching, ‘the tao that can be spoken of is not the constant tao,’ seems to be in the back of Su’s mind throughout, although he never cites it.” For Su Shi, the Tao encompasses many things, including both historical categories of human affairs and objects perceived by human beings, and can be “brought on“only through close studies of them (“Ri yu” [On finding an analogy for the sun]). Literature, then, provided the best way to transport the Tao to other people by making things “comprehensible” in words, which can discriminate shapes, colors, tastes, sounds, and movements. By doing so, literature introduces particular cases of human practice for the reader to intuit—rather than define—the meaning, or the Tao, embodied in everything. Understandably, the literati should strive to acquire knowledge and polish their literary and artistic skills in order to grasp the subtleties of things as if “binding the wind and catching the shadow” (“Yu Xie Minshi tuiguan shu” [Letter to Judge Xie Minshi]).
Su himself provides the best example in using literature and art to reflect the fundamental principles underlying the phenomenal world. As a result, his accomplishments mark the peak of almost every field of Song intellectual life: Confucian, Taoist, and Buddhist scholarship, poetry, calligraphy, painting, and essay writing. The huge body of his essays—over 3000 pieces—covers every possible subgenre, varying from political disquisitions to historical comments, literary and art reviews, philosophical essays, travelogues, biographies, epitaphs, character sketches, botanical and zoological articles, medical and pharmacoiogical notes, and even cookery entries. Taken together they reflect Su’s effort to understand the world by various means and his eagerness to share his findings with his audience.
Two important features characterize Su Shi’s style. First, a philosophical touch often flavors his essays, resulting from his tireless pursuit of the Tao. He even ushers reasoning into his travelogues, generally a descriptive and sentimental genre, to abstract epistemological or moral truth from his observation of natural scenery. For instance, “Shizhong shan ji” (“Stone Bells Mountain”) recounts a moonlit boat outing he conducted in order to find out the origin of the name “Stone Bells.” The account of the search is accompanied by a vivid description of various sounds echoing among the grotesquely shaped rocks. This surreal presentation of an audiovisual symphony finally leads to a rational conclusion—the importance of achieving knowledge through investigation and sharing that knowledge accurately.
Secondly, Su’s essays contain such unrestrained vitality that they burst any conscious boundaries and flow along their own natural tracks. As he himself puts it: “My writing is like ten thousand barrels of spring water, gushing from the ground, choosing no specific outlet. On level ground, it floods and covers thousands of miles in a day without the least effort. Turning and twisting with the mountains and rocks, it takes its forms from whatever it encounters, unpredictably. All that can be foretold is that it always goes where it should go, and it always stops where it cannot but stop” (“Zi ping wen” [Criticism of my own essays]). This tendency, again, comes from his understanding of literature’s function of communicating the Tao. Since each thing in the world follows its own course, literature should not yield to any single rule, but instead conform to what it is intended to reflect, just as water “takes its forms from whatever it encounters.”
Su Shi’s sincerity toward the truth in life and the world, however, set him at odds with contemporary trends, whether political or scholastic. Although he attained his jinshi degree—the highest in the civil service examination system—at the age of 20 and thus gained the attention of the emperor, he never really remained within the center of political power. All his life he was in continual exile and demotion, often through accusations fabricated by his enemies upon intentional misreading of his literary works.
Despite these dismal experiences, Su manifested “a transcendental outlook that rose above momentary human sorrow” (Chang Kang-i Sun, in The Indiana Companion to Traditional Chinese Literature, 1986), best expressed in his two-rhyme prose (fu) entitled “Chibi fu” (“The Red Cliff”). Linking the vicissitudes of human life and history with the natural rhythms of change—the progression of the seasons, the waxing and waning of the moon, the flowing of the water—as illustriously described in these two masterpieces, Su Shi merged transient human life with the perpetual process of nature. Thus he transcended mundane trivialities and found serenity in dissolving himself into nature’s fluid eternity.
Among a great range of previous writers who had influenced him, Su Shi drew the most inspiration from the Taoist philosopher Zhuang Zi (c. 369–c. 286 BCE). In addition to his assimilation of Zhuang Zi’s philosophical axioms, Su Shi also emulated his great capability of accurately expressing his meanings with words. As his brother Su Zhe recollected: “…then he [Su Shi] read the Zhuang Zi. He said with a sigh, ‘Previously, when I perceived something of what was within me, my mouth was unable to put it into words. Now I have seen the Zhuang Zi and grasped my own mind’” (“Wangxiong Zizhan duanming muzhi ming” [Epitaph for my late elder brother Zizhan]; Bol). Already a model essayist for his contemporaries during his lifetime, Su Shi’s influence grew even stronger after his death. His style directly affected the civil service examination system in the Southern Song period (1127–1279). A common saying of the time proclaimed that “If one is familiar with Su Shi’s essays, he will eat mutton (he will be able to pass the civil examinations and will thereupon live a wealthy life); if not, he can only eat vegetable soup (he will not be able to pass the civil examinations and hence will live poorly)” (Cheng and Wu, 1991). His reputation reached its zenith in the Ming period (1368–1644), when the Tang-Song School essayists canonized his works and Ming literati in general regarded him as the most celebrated of all men of letters. The wealth of folktales and jokes he had incorporated in his own essays also found their way to the public. His fascinating personality, his great achievements in art and literature, and his benevolent governing made him a legendary hero in popular culture, which in turn increased his literary glamor. Su Shi has attracted one of the largest audiences in Chinese literary history.
Courtesy name Su Zizhan; studio name Su Dongpo. Born 8 January 1037 in Meishan, Sichuan province. Married Wang Fu, 1054 (died, 1065). Passed jinshi (civil service) exams, 1057, and decree exams, 1061. Notary, Fenxiang, 1062–64. Married Wang Runzhi, 1068 (died, 1093). Vice prefect, Hangzhou, 1071–73, and prefect, Mizhou, 1074–76, and Xuzhou, 1077–79. Arrested for slandering the emperor and court, 1079, and exiled to Huangzhou, 1080–84; prefect, Dengzhou, 1085; Hanglin academician,
1086–88 and 1091; prefect, Hangzhou, 1089–90, Yingzhou and Yangzhou, 1091–92, and Dengzhou, 1093. Exiled again, to Huizhou, 1094–97, and Hainan Island, 1097–1100, then pardoned. Also a calligrapher and painter. Died in Changzhou, 28 July 1101.
Essays and Related Prose
Selections from the Works of Su Tung-p’o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1931
The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-p’o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1935
Jingjin Dongpo wenji shilüe (Annotated selection of prose), edited by Lang Ye, 1979
Su Shi wenji (Collected essays), edited by Kong Fangli, 6 vols., 1986
Translations of essays in: Chinese Classical Prose: The Eight Masters of the T’ang- Sung Period, edited and translated by Shi Shun Liu, 1979:232–85; Inscribed Landscapes:
Travel Writing from Imperial China, translated by Richard E.Strassberg, 1994:185–94
Other writings: poetry.
Collected works editions: Su Dongpo ci, edited by Cao Shuming, 1968; Su Shi shiji, edited by Kong Fanli, 1982.
Bol, Peter, “This Culture of Ours”: Intellectual Transitions in T’ang and Sung China, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1992
Chen, Yu-shih, Images and Ideas in Chinese Classical Prose: Studies of Four Masters, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1988
Cheng Qianfan and Wu Xinlei, Liang Song wenxue shi (The literary history of the Norhern Song and the Southern Song), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chuban she, 1991
Dongpo yanjiu luncong (Studies of Su Dongpo), Chengdu: Sichuan wenyi, 1986
Egan, Ronald C., Word, Image, and Deed in the Life of Su Shi, Cambridge,
Massachusetts: Harvard University Council on East Asian Studies and Harvard- Yenching Institute, 1994
Fuller, Michael, The Road to East Slope: The Development of Su Shi’s Poetic Voice, Stanford, California: Stanford University Press, 1990
Grant, Beata, Mount Lu Revisited: Buddhism in the Life and Writings of Su Shih, Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 1994
Guo Shaoyu, Zhongguo wenxue piping shi (History of Chinese literary criticism), Shanghai: Xin wenyi chuban she, 1957
Hatch, George C., “Su Shih,” in Sung Biographies, vol. 3, edited by Herbert Franke, Wiesbaden: Steiner, 1976:900–68
Lin, Yu-tang, The Gay Genius: The Life and Times of Su Tungpo, New York: Day, 1947;
London: Heinemann, 1948
Liu, James J.Y., Chinese Theories of Literature, Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1975
Liu Naichang, editor, Su Shi wenxue lunji (Collected studies on Su Shi’s writings), Jinan: Qilu shushe, 1982
Liu Xizai, Yigai (A theoretical summary of art), Shanghai: Shanghai guji chuban she, 1978
Ma Jigao, Song-Ming lixue yu wenxue (Neo-Confucianism and literature in the Song and Ming periods), Changsha: Hunan shifan daxue chuban she, 1989
March, Andrew L., Landscape in the Thought of Su Shih (dissertation), Seattle: University of Washington, 1964
Su Zhe, “Wangxiong Zizhan duanming muzhi ming” (Epitaph for my late elder brother Zizhan), in Su Zhe ji, Nuancheng houji, no. 22, Beijing: Zhonghua shuju, 1990: 1117– 28
Yu Xinli, Su Dongpo de wenxue lilun (The literary theories of Su Dongpo), Taibei: Xuesheng shuju, 1981
Zeng Zaozhuang, Su Shi pingzhuan (Critical biography of Su Shi), Chengdu: Sichuan renmin chuban she, 1981
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