Su Dongpo Biography


(History of the World: The Middle Ages)

Article abstract: One of China’s most famous poets and scholars, Su Dongpo was also an important government official during the Song Dynasty (960-1279). He figured prominently in the political controversies surrounding the attempted imposition of state capitalist programs.

Early Life

Su Shi (he took Su Dongpo [or Su Tung-p’o in Wade-Giles] as his pen name) was the eldest son of an upper-class, landowning family living in the western Chang Province of Sichuan during China’s Song Dynasty. His clan was one of the most distinguished literary families in the history of China. He, his father, Su Xun, and his younger brother, Su Zeyou, all were famous scholars and government officials. In the eleventh century, Sichuan Province produced a high percentage of scholar-officials, noted for their cosmopolitan prose and poetry. Su Dongpo grew up in a cultured, sophisticated home which prepared its sons to take imperial civil service examinations. Success in these exams would guarantee for the family official positions and access to wealth and power.

Su Dongpo and his brother Su Zeyou were both brilliant students. Lifelong friends, their careers in scholarship and government were inextricably linked. Their personalities were different but complementary: Su Zeyou was serious, stable, cautious whereas Su Dongpo was impetuous, volatile, and excitable. They stayed in continuous contact with each other, even when their official duties separated them by hundreds of miles, communicating in poetry at least monthly throughout their lives.

In 1056 the brothers went to Kaifeng in northern China to take the imperial exams. This city was the metropolis of China, cloaked in imperial grandeur. The wealth, talent, and beauty of the nation centered on the court. The brothers were not dazzled by the city’s splendor, however, and passed the exams with high honors. Su Dongpo’s main examination essay, which developed the principle of simplicity and leniency in the administration of a country, caught the attention of the imperial examiner and the emperor himself. On April 14, 1057, at the age of twenty, Su Dongpo was officially designated a jinshi (the highest ranking academic honor), second in a class of 388 successful candidates. He thus achieved instant fame and recognition as one of the leading scholars of China. Normally he would have entered immediately into government service, but his mother died during the examinations and he had to go into a cumpulsory period of twenty-seven months of mourning. He already was known as a literary genius, however, and he emerged from the mourning ready to assume his public life.

Life’s Work

Su Dongpo’s life was notable for three reasons. First, he was a brilliant, if somewhat impetuous, scholar-bureaucrat who figured prominently in the political disputes of the early Song Dynasty. Because he took controversial stances on important issues, he frequently found himself in serious conflict with his bureaucratic superiors and opponents. Second, he was one of China’s most gifted poets and literary figures. His contemporaries compared him to China’s greatest men of letters, and succeeding generations have continued to honor his genius. He was equally versatile in prose and poetry, writing in a beautiful classical style. He experimented with a common form of poetry, the ci, which had been previously confined to love songs composed in cabarets, and turned it into a vehicle for discourse on Buddhist and Daoist philosophy. Third, he developed a theory of calligraphy and painting resembling modern impressionism. The purpose of painting, according to Su Dongpo, was to paint the inner spirit rather than the form of an object. The painting should reflect not only the spirit of the object but also the artist’s inner essence.

In the early phase of his career, from 1062 to 1079, he achieved fame as both a government bureaucrat and a poet. After a brief posting as a minor provincial official, he returned to the capital (Kaifeng) in 1064. Thereafter, he and his brother were swept into the center of a political storm surrounding the efforts of the statesman Wang Anshi (1021-1086) to reform Chinese government and society.

To most of its inhabitants, the Song Dynasty seemed peaceful, prosperous, and humane. China had agricultural wealth, busy commercial cities, and great public works such as canals, walls, and roads. Beneath the surface, however, lay chronic national difficulties. Barbarian tribes in the north and west constantly threatened invasion, forcing the Song to maintain large armies, which overtaxed the imperial treasury. Despite the country’s apparent productivity, the government rarely had sufficient revenues to meet its obligations. It was clear to many officials, if not the majority, that fundamental reform was necessary to save the dynasty. Yet the questions of the shape the reforms should take and who should lead them caused acrimonious bureaucratic conflicts.

Between 1069 and 1077, Wang Anshi served as the chief imperial adviser and initiated institutional reforms designed to change fundamental fiscal, economic, and bureaucratic practices. First, he instituted state capitalist schemes to increase government revenues. One such program, for example, provided government loans to farmers at an actual interest rate of 30 percent. Second, he levied numerous new taxes. Finally, he established methods of registration to regiment and control the people. The baojia system, for example, organized the people into groups of ten and sixty, from which able-bodied men were called up for military training and duty. While these reforms seemed capable of resolving some of the government’s fiscal woes, the methods by which they were implemented alarmed Su Dongpo and his colleagues.

In essence, Su Dongpo contended that Wang’s methods were...

(The entire section is 2416 words.)