Su Shih Essay - Critical Essays

Su Shih


Su Shih 1036-1101

(Also known as Su Tung-p'o.) Chinese poet and essayist.

Considered one of the greatest of the Sung dynasty (960-1279) poets, Su was a popular and prolific author who composed poetry, essays, satires, art criticism, political, philosophical, and medical treatises, and experimented in the traditional shih and tz'u genres. Many scholars have noted that Su was a supreme master of fu, or prose poetry, and, while his philosophical ideas and theories of landscape continue to interest twentieth-century critics, it is for his simple, lyrical expressions of friendship, the pleasures of drinking, and the pain of loneliness that he remains best known today.

Biographical Information

Su was born in Mei-shan, now Szechwan Province. His father, a civil servant, and his mother, a devout Buddhist whose faith early influenced her son, provided Su with a good education at a private school run by a Taoist priest. In 1056, like most well-educated young men in China at the time, Su took the government civil service exam and passed with distinction. He received a post as a supervisor of public works in 1061, but, always an unconventional and outspoken thinker, made political enemies when he caricatured the verse of some official censors and was exiled to Huang-chou from 1080 to 1084. Around this time, Su began calling himself Tung-p'o chu-shih, or "the Layman of Eastern Slope," a reference to the piece of land he farmed during this period; Su Tung-p'o has traditionally been used as the poet's literary name. Su experienced two more punishments during his government career: he was jailed in 1094 for some critical references to the government, and in 1097 he was banished to the island of Hainan for having spoken disrespectfully to the Emperor. In letters written to friends during this period Su often lamented the transient life he lived as a civil servant and the isolation he experienced while in exile. His contemporaries characterized him as a compassionate, humane official who did what he could to improve the lot of the poor farmers among whom he lived and who cultivated a warm relationship with the citizenry wherever he happened to be. In his official capacity, Su oversaw the building of dams and coordinated famine relief, but he also involved himself in caring for orphans and in the prevention of female infanticide. He also became interested in medicine (there is a book of medicinal recipes ascribed to him and a contemporary, Shen Kua) and developed his considerable skill as a painter and calligrapher. Having been restored to favor in 1000, Su died in 1101.

Major Works

While Su's political writings and philosophical commentaries partake of the Confucian tradition, his poetry exhibits Taoist, Buddhist, and Confucian influences, as well as that of earlier Chinese poets, from whom Su borrowed freely. His best-known poems—"The Red Cliff," "The Pavillion of Flying Cranes," "Bending Bamboos of Yun-Tang Valley," "Pine Wine of the Middle Mountains," and "The Pavillion of Glad Rain," for example—are noted for their simple, spontaneous outpouring of emotion, and their emphasis on self-knowledge and unity with nature. These aspects, critics have noted, also typify the classical movement in Chinese literature which was taking place between the eighth and twelfth centuries, and of which Su was one of the leaders. Scholars also credit Su with the revival of the fu genre, which had been neglected for several centuries by Chinese writers. The theme of unity with nature and the striving toward Taoist goals also figures prominently in Su's painting poems, compositions which explicate various paintings in philosophical and poetic terms.

Critical Reception

Of the vast number of poems and essays written by Su, approximately 2,400 survive in authentic texts; scholars are able to date the majority of his writings fairly accurately. Su's works have been extremely popular with readers from his own time onward, and, while they were banned right after his death because of his unorthodox political views, they were circulated widely and eventually restored to favor. Twentieth-century critics have continued to explore various aspects of Su's writings—for example, the imagery and poetic voice in his verse writings, his theory of art as expressed through his landscape and painting poems, and his views on his contemporaries and his society as seen in his prose works. Most scholars still agree with Herbert A. Giles's assessment of Su: "Under his hands, the language of which China is so proud may be said to have reached perfection of finish, of art concealed. [In] subtlety of reasoning, in the lucid expression of abstractions, such as in English too often eludes the faculty of the tongue, Su Tung P'o is an unrivalled master."

Principal English Translations

*Gems of Chinese Literature (edited by Herbert A. Giles) 1923

Selections from the Works of Su Tung-P'o (translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark) 1931

Su Tung-P'o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet (translated by Burton Watson) 1965

The Road to East Slope: The Development of Su Shi's Poetic Voice (translated by Michael Fuller) 1990

*Includes selections from the works of Su Shih.


Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (essay date 1931)

SOURCE: An introduction to Selections from the Works of Su Tung-p'o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, Jonathan Cape, 1931, pp. 23-33.

[Clark is a scholar and translator of Chinese literature. Here, he describes the general tenor of Su's works, emphasizing that "permeating his writings is an unmistakable sympathy with his fellow beings, an understanding of their lives, a compassion for their troubles."]

It has been said that Su Shih revived 'the plain speaking of the satirical odes.' Certain it is that as a satirist who never hesitated to censure or ridicule when he considered either necessary, Tung-p'o stands out most prominently amongst his contemporaries. A brilliant essayist and poet, he—like Ou-yang Hsiu—is regarded as an almost universal genius, but is even a greater favourite with the Chinese literary public. To quote Dr. H. A. Giles in his Gems of Chinese Literature, 'Under his hands, the language of which China is so proud may be said to have reached perfection of finish, of art concealed. In subtlety of reasoning, in the lucid expression of abstractions, such as in English too often elude the faculty of the tongue, Su Tung-p'o is an unrivalled master.'

His writings were voluminous, and numerous editions of his complete works, under the title of Tung-p'o Ch 'üan Chi, have been published from the time of the Sung dynasty down to the present day. These works covered a great variety of subjects and were produced in many different styles, including letters, essays, records, memorials, epitaphs, prose-poems and verse.

A study of this literature gives the reader an insight into not only the times in which the author lived but also the character and temperament of the man himself. His extreme outspokenness, for instance, was continually getting him into trouble with the Throne, resulting in a series of banishments and dismissals from the posts he held, a process which continued intermittently throughout his life. Commencing with his opposition to Wang An-shih, the Innovator, and the poet's departure from the Capital to a subordinate post at Hangchow, he, shortly afterwards, lampooned in verse two of the Court Censors and, in 1072, was dismissed to Huangchow. Seven years later, on being transferred to Huchow, he presented a memorial returning thanks for this appointment. A Censor discovered allusions derogatory to the Government and Tung-p'o was thrown into prison. After several years of changing fortune during which he was summoned to return to Court, he was obliged once more to go into the provinces and, in 1094, was accused of having spoken disrespectfully of the late Emperor, and banished, first to Huichow in Kuangtung, and afterwards to the island of Hainan.

His experiences, however, had taught him in later life to be more careful in his political references, and we find few of them in his writings during his last years. Here and there occurs a vague allusion, but he appears rather to warn his friends against making similar mistakes. In a letter to his grand-nephew, Yüan Lao, he counsels him to be on his guard in all things while in the metropolis. He concludes his letter with the words—'And now, above all things be circumspect.' In another letter to the same relative he writes, 'I assure you I am anxious to compose the Epitaph and have no thought of drawing back, but, of late, anxieties and fears have crowded upon me thicker than ever. I can set about nothing nowadays without taking all sorts of precautions—eating, drinking, or talking, it is all the same. I fancy you will divine my meaning.'

Wherever he went and whatever post he held, Tung-p'o seemed to leave his mark in some practical manner, generally by digging wells. A train of wells marked his wanderings over the Empire, and he records in his writings his experiences in this line, notably in Ch'ien T'ang, in Chekiang and in Kiungchow in Hainan. In this latter place he found two springs to the north-east of the city, a few feet apart, but with waters of different taste. We are credibly informed that the Chinese profess great faith in the quality of this well, known as Tung-p'o's Double Spring, 'nor is their belief much shaken by the fact that foreign analysis is in favour of a rival well.' He added largely to the architectural beauties of Hangchow; at Yinchow he carried on successfully the work of famine relief, and the Yellow River benefited by his engineering skill.

Many of his essays and poems contain passages of great beauty, such as The Red Cliff, and The Pavillon of Flying Cranes. To read, for instance, the 'Song of the Cranes' in the original Chinese is a delight which only the sublime poetry of the Immortals can bring to one. Again, his powers of imagination are manifested in such lines as his description of Ts'ao Ts'ao's fleet sailing down towards the Red Cliff; the raging typhoon; Wang Hsün marching upon K'un Yang. Or his description of that night under the Stonebell Hill, when, accompanied by his son, Mai, he took a boat to investigate the uncanny sounds which came from its foot. 'The mighty rock rose to a height of a thousand feet, like an infuriate beast or strange monster about to pounce upon us. Falcons, perched upon the hills, rose in screaming fright to the clouds on hearing the sounds of men.

'There were noises too, like an old man coughing and cackling, in the gulleys of the hill—'

We find, too, passages of extreme tenderness, showing how deeply he felt the loss of a friend. His references to Wên Yü-k'o in the Bending Bamboos of Yün-Tang Valley are most touching in their sorrow, as for instance when he tells how, while drying his books and pictures, he...

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Ch'ien Chung-shu (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: A foreword to The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-P'o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1935. Reprint by Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964, xiii-xxii.

[Ch'ien Chung-shu is one of China's most distinguished literary figures. A professor of English and Chinese at Kwang Hua University in Shanghai, he is the author of numerous essays, a significant body of literary criticism, and several short stories. He is probably best known for his novel Wei Cheng (1947; Fortress Besieged, 1979), a satire regarded as one of the greatest Chinese literary works of the twentieth century. Below, he comments on Su's prose poems and adds that "the interest of Su Tung-p'o for us lies in the...

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Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark (essay date 1935)

SOURCE: An introduction to The Prose-Poetry of Su Tung-P ' o, translated by Cyril Drummond Le Gros Clark, 1935. Reprint by Paragon Book Reprint Corp., 1964, pp. 3-52.

[In the following essay, Clark explores the elements of Su's philosophy of art, contending that he combined aspects of Confucianism, Taoism, and Buddhism into one unified vision of life and art.]

Outside his own country Su Tung-p'o is, perhaps, best known as a satirist whose writings were continually getting him into trouble. Chinese commentators do not agree with this interpretation of Su's writings, and it is probable that satire is the exception, rather than the rule, in the poet's intention. When he...

(The entire section is 5438 words.)

Burton Watson (essay date 1965)

SOURCE: An Introduction to Su Tung-P'o: Selections from a Sung Dynasty Poet, translated by Burton Watson, Columbia University Press, 1965, pp. 3-16.

[Watson is a scholar and translator of Chinese and Japanese literature whose numerous publications include Early Chinese Literature (1962) and Great Historical Figures of Japan (1978). Here, he presents an overview of Su 's life and works, touching on his style and the Buddhist and Taoist influences in his poetry.]

Culturally, the Sung period was one of the great ages of Chinese history. The dynasty, which lasted from 960 to 1279, faced powerful enemies abroad: the Liao, a Khitan state in the northeast; a...

(The entire section is 3726 words.)

Andrew L. March (essay date 1966)

SOURCE: "Self and Landscape in Su Shih," Journal of the American Oriental Society, Vol. 86, 1966, pp. 377-96.

[March is a professor of geology, anthropology, and China humanities who has written many journal articles and The Idea of China: Myth and Theory in Geographic Thought (1974). In the following excerpt, he explores the connection between Su's concept of art, his understanding of landscape, and his striving to perfect himself according to the principles of the Tao.]

Su Shih's Fertile and energetic mind was more poetic than discursive, and the weight of his ideas is often carried by images appealing to experience rather than by rational argument. Landscape...

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Kojiro Yoshikawa (essay date 1967)

SOURCE: "Late Period of the Northern Sung—1050-1100," in An Introduction to Sung Poetry, translated by Burton Watson, Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1967, pp. 85-133.

[In the following excerpt, Yoshikawa presents a detailed discussion about the manner in which Su was able to "transcend sorrow by means of a philosophy that viewed the infinite variety of human life with a largeness of vision that was equally varied.]

Su Tung-p'o's poetic works, in which he gives free and unrestrained expression to his rich and varied talent, are unmatched in stature by anything else in Sung poetry. First of all, he took over the interest in description that was already...

(The entire section is 7021 words.)

Yu-Shih Chen (essay date 1988)

SOURCE: "Su Shih: A Theory of Perception in Art," in Images and Ideas in Chinese Classical Prose: Studies of Four Masters, Stanford University Press, 1988, pp. 133-53.

[Here, Yu-Shih Chen explores Su's intellectual and artistic development during the period of 1071 to 1085, characterizing him as an intuitive and unorthodox thinker.]

Su Shih (1036-1101) was 30 years younger than his patron Ou-yang Hsiu, and so their careers and thoughts were not … closely intertwined.… Politically, Su Shih, like Ou-yang Hsiu in his later years, was part of the conservative opposition to the New Law Reform. In literary theory, they are frequently mentioned together in the context of...

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Further Reading

Egan, Ronald C. "Poems on Paintings: Su Shih and Huang T'ing-chien." Harvard Journal of Asiatic Studies 43, No. 2 (December 1983): 413-51.

Studies Su's poems on paintings and concludes that, "ultimately, it is … familiarity with the art form that frees Su and Huang [the other poet whose works are discussed in this article] from any sense of obligation to dwell, in their poems, on the representation itself. They are at ease with the idea of depicting reality on silk and do not feel the need to reiterate, and hence to legitimize with words, what the painter has drawn with his brush. In this respect they remain true as poets to the anti-representational stance they take.…...

(The entire section is 488 words.)